Outside Operational Parameters

Welcome to the ninth of twelve.  For my New Year’s resolution, I decided to write twelve short stories this year, one each month.  On the last Wednesday of each month, I post the story I was working on for that month.  So without further ado, I present to you “Outside Operational Parameters”.

 

Allan Mayhew knew it was going to be a bad day the moment the men in suits knocked on his door.

“Mr. Mayhew,” one of them asked.

“Yes?”

“There’s been a situation. We need you to come with us.”

“Don’t care.”

“It involves your former government work.”

“Still don’t care.” He started to close the door.

“It’s about SAMI, Mr. Mayhew.”

The door stopped halfway. That got his attention.

The sedan they drove in stuck out like a sore thumb in the rural countryside, a jet-black hunk of metal screaming across the asphalt. They made their way into the city but didn’t stop until they hit the airport. Mayhew’s suspicions that the situation was more serious than the Secret Service agents let on was confirmed the moment he saw the presidential helicopter sitting on the tarmac: a dark green body with a white top and an American flag proudly displayed just below the rotors. Stepping inside, he was greeted with comfortable seating and wood-paneled walls. He took a seat near the window and gazed out at the airport. It was a bright fall day in September, the rows of planes gleaming under the sun.

They took off just a few minutes later. An attendant walked by and asked if he’d like a drink. Mayhew shook his head and went back to staring out the window.

“Where are we going,” he asked the agent sitting across from him.

“The Pentagon,” the agent replied.

Mayhew turned from the window and looked at him.

“Why?”

“They’ll explain when you get there,” the agent said.

“Really? You just show up at my door, whisk me away to D.C., and you won’t tell me anything?”

“You still came, didn’t you?”

He had a point.

“Where’s the president,” he asked after a moment. “Shouldn’t he be here?”

“The president is indisposed at the moment,” the agent replied. Mayhew didn’t buy that line for a second. Jesus, he thought to himself, things must be bad if the president can’t even make a public appearance.

He turned his attention back to the window. Despite the fact that he was only a year away from forty, Mayhew felt like he had lived a lifetime. He had short brown hair and a tired, worn face. It was clear that he was not a people person. His caramel eyes looked right through you, as though he was constantly deep in thought or daydreaming.

With a double degree in computer science and electrical engineering, Mayhew was a man who knew his way around machines. It was this expertise that drew the government’s attention in the first place. He had to admit, the government work paid well. But that was all he liked about it. Mayhew had his fair share of problems with the government, just like any concerned citizen. What he couldn’t stand most of all was the euphemisms, the packaged words within words that you had to peel away in order to figure out what they were actually saying.

After a while, Mayhew noticed he was being watched. Seated across the room from him was a stoic-faced military man, clad in green camo. He had the hard look of combat in his brown eyes and a crew cut in his hair. His stare was unflinching.

“You need something,” Mayhew asked.

The soldier pondered him for a moment.

“What’s your deal,” he asked.

“My…deal?”

“Yeah. Why’d they bring a civilian in on this?”

Mayhew already didn’t like him. His voice had the snippy, prickly tone of a man who thought they were always right.

Nevertheless, he shrugged. “If I had to guess, it’s because of my expertise with machines.”

“Ah I see.” The arrogant smirk that crawled across the man’s face made Mayhew hate him even more. “So what, you one of them computer geeks?”

“We prefer the term ‘nerd’. Makes us actually sound useful,” Mayhew said. “So what’s your deal? You one of them boys with guns? You get off on shooting people?”

The smirk vanished instantaneously. “What the hell is your problem?”

“Right now? You.”

The man scoffed. “You’re an uptight asshole.”

“And you’re an insufferable idiot.”

The man stood up, his eyes quivering with hotheaded anger. But before things could go any further, the Secret Service agent sitting across from him shot up from his seat.

“That’s enough! You,” he pointed to the soldier, “sit down. And both of you shut up!

Begrudgingly, the soldier returned to his seat. The agent sat back down and silence ruled the rest of the trip.

Eventually, Washington D.C. appeared through the clouds. Skyscrapers of thick, gleaming metal slid beneath them as the helicopter made its way toward the Pentagon. They passed over a large green park and there it was. The grass slipped away and a five-pointed monstrosity of concrete and steel appeared before them. It had been a long time since Mayhew had been here, but it barely looked any different. The helicopter made its way down to the courtyard and everyone disembarked.

As he stepped off the chopper, Mayhew noted with smug satisfaction that the soldier he had traded words with was keeping a fair distance between them, taking up the lead and disappearing through the main doors.

“I know he’s a hothead,” the secret service agent next to him said, “but couldn’t you have at least tried to be nice?”

“I’m not here to make friends,” Mayhew replied. “I’m here to find out how you fucked up with my A.I.”

 

“Please seat yourselves and we’ll begin.”

They had taken Mayhew into a gigantic conference room. Seated at a long circular table was an array of military personnel and officers. A set of metal double doors led into the room. One giant screen displaying the world map dominated the far wall, which was flanked by a number of smaller screens, all detailing positions and data Mayhew couldn’t decipher at a glance. He took his seat in between the Secret Service agents that had escorted him here and waited for the briefing to start.

“Approximately five hours ago, we lost contact with code name ‘Iron Raven’, our autonomous drone positioned over Syria. Its mission was to surveil and assault key Syrian Alliance military positions. The drone was in the process of performing an attack run on an insurgent hideout when we abruptly lost connection.”

The man speaking was evidently a general. He was wearing a green uniform with a black tie and white dress shirt underneath. Silver stars lined his shoulders, and a tag on the upper right identified him as “G. Barker.”

“We are still attempting to re-establish connection with SAMI, the artificial intelligence that drives the drone, but have had little success thus far,” he said.

The uniform came with a hat, which he had set down on the table before speaking, revealing a short mat of brown hair that had begun to lose color. His green eyes were harsh and unfriendly. Mayhew guessed the man was in his late fifties.

“The events were recorded for the archives. We’ll play the recording for you now.”

Barker picked up a remote control and pressed a button. The large screen flickered, switching from its previous display of the world map to a recording taken from the drone’s main camera. It was flying just below the clouds, hovering over a harsh desert landscape.

“Thirty seconds to target,” a voice on the recording said.

“How many hostiles?” Mayhew recognized the voice of Barker.

“Thermal imaging shows approximately thirty to thirty-two.”

“Awful lot of personnel for a hideout,” Barker said on the recording.

There was a moment of silence.

“Fifteen seconds to target.”

Vague, almost indistinguishable blobs of brick and mortar appeared far below the drone. It was a small, desert town. Even from the drone’s high elevation, the devastation of war was evident. Entire buildings had collapsed in on themselves from repeated bombings. Some were little more than piles of rubble.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven…”

A dull, gray square appeared on the drone’s heads up display, focusing on a single, two-story building. After a second, it turned blood-red.

“Four, three, two, one…missile away!”

A bright flash of light swept in from the side of the screen. A blurry, indistinct shape flew past, arcing downward toward the targeted building. A moment later, there was a bright flare. The upper section of the building began to crumble, but quickly vanished beneath the screen as the drone flew upward in a sharp arc.

“Direct hit! SAMI is coming back for another attack run.”

“Excellent,” the voice of Barker said.

The camera shuddered and shook as the drone climbed into the air, then spun around in a one-eighty degree motion. The building once again appeared under the bright red crosshair. Mayhew could see that a large chunk of the second floor had given way, collapsing into the ground floor.

“Fifteen seconds to target.”

The drone flew downward faster and faster, a bird eyeing its prey.

“Ten…nine…eight…seven…si-“

The countdown abruptly ceased as the drone’s camera flickered with static. The red crosshair vanished. The drone moved off target and began to climb back into the sky.

“What just happened,” the voice of Barker demanded.

“I…I don’t know sir! The drone broke off! It’s refusing to accept my orders.”

“Get it back on course!”

“I can’t sir…it-“

The screen went blank and a message appeared in the center saying “connection terminated”.

“Sir the signal was shut down!”

“Well get it back up!”

“I can’t…nothing is working! Every connection attempt I make is rejected!”

“By who?”

“By the drone, sir.”

“What in the hell…you get that piece of junk back on the line and pronto!”

And with that, the recording ended. The screen flickered back to the world map. Barker got up from his seat and addressed the room at large.

“Any and all attempts to re-establish contact with the drone have failed,” he explained.

“What happened out there,” one of the men seated at the table asked. “Why did the drone terminate the connection and go off mission?”

“The reasons behind the drone’s actions are currently unknown,” Barker said.

“Could it be hacking from Syrian Alliance forces,” another person asked.

“We are looking into all possibilities. At this point, Syrian hackers are our number one suspect.”

“You’re wrong.”

Every single pair of eyes in the room turned toward Mayhew. General Barker was taken aback for a moment. Then, a sinister smile crawled across his face.

“Ah, Mr. Allan Mayhew,” he said. “Glad to see you could join us. I figured you were too busy turning tail and running away.”

A few people laughed.

“Actually, the only tails I saw were the ones between your legs when you showed up at my door and begged me to fix your mistakes,” Mayhew said with an unflinching expression.

The laughter ceased at once. Barker’s smile vanished.

“And what’s your theory, Mr. Mayhew,” he asked.

“I think the drone broke off of its own accord.”

A couple of people in the room muttered among themselves. Barker’s face showed no hint of a reaction.

“That’s preposterous,” he said. “Why would it do that?”

“I don’t know,” Mayhew admitted. “But what I do know is this: the purpose of Project Iron Raven was to outfit the United States military with an autonomous surveillance drone that could think for itself and fed real-time data to troops in the field without having to rely on an operator.”

“That much is true, yes,” Barker acknowledged.

“Well at least it was before you people decided to strap weapons to it like you do everything around here.”

“Please stay on point, Mr. Mayhew.”

“Fine,” Mayhew grumbled. “As I said, the drone was to be autonomous, driven by a state of the art artificial intelligence. That intelligence is SAMI, short for Strategic Artificial Military Intelligence. My point is, hacking into this drone is not like hacking into a normal computer. A computer won’t fight back against a virus unless you tell it to. SAMI, however, actively defends itself against any viral intrusions, much like the human body fending off the flu. It can think faster than any human can, meaning any hacker would find themselves out of their league going up against it. No…it’s far more likely that SAMI went off mission on its own.”

“Very well,” Barker said. “Then our mission becomes determining if SAMI decided to break off on its own, and if so, why.”

A thought occurred to Mayhew.

“Why didn’t you use the failsafe shutdown command,” he asked.

“The what?”

“It was a command I buried deep with SAMI’s code after I learned of the government’s intention to turn it into a weapon. I wanted there to be a way to deal with the drone should something like this ever happen.”

“Wouldn’t the drone discover that code,” someone asked.

“No,” Mayhew said. “I disguised it so that it looked like nothing more than random bits of data. SAMI would never find it unless it already knew it was there.”

“Ah…I remember the code you’re talking about now,” Barker said. “A genius piece of work if I do say so myself. However, we made the choice to remove it.”

“You what?!

“We didn’t want our enemies to have a possible method of disabling a powerful weapon and taking it into their own hands.”

“Didn’t I just explain the slim chance of hackers actually-“

“It’s fine, Mr. Mayhew. We installed our own failsafes that only we here in Washington can activate.”

“Oh yeah? And how’d that work out for you?”

Mayhew had to admit, he took immense satisfaction out of watching the color drain from Barker’s face. The general’s chest puffed out and his eyes flared with unadulterated anger. However, unlike the soldier from the helicopter, Barker demonstrated greater self-control. The intense scowl on his face disappeared and the calm look of authority returned.

“We’ve been attempting to re-establish connection every ten minutes since this began,” Barker said. “So far we’ve been unsuccessful.”

Then, he turned his eyes directly on Mayhew.

“But since you’re so sure of yourself…perhaps you’ll have better luck.”

 

The War Room sounded more dramatic than it was. The walls were the same lifeless gray as everything else Mayhew had seen so far. There were lots of computers lined up in neat little rows and a series of large screens on one wall. Currently, the largest screen was showing a message that said “attempting connection”.

A moment later, it blinked and said “connection failed.”

“We’ve been trying for over four hours to re-establish connection,” a man standing next to Mayhew explained. He had friendly blue eyes and black hair. His tag identified him as “J. Laird” and from what Mayhew could tell, he was a colonel. The medals pinned to his chest told Mayhew he was a decorated one. He took particular note of the two Purple Hearts sitting side by side.

“What do you need me to do, colonel,” Mayhew asked.

“Please, call me Laird. In any case, we want you to try achieving a connection with the drone. We’ve set up a laptop for you already,” he said, directing Mayhew to an unmarked black laptop sitting at a nearby table.

Mayhew pulled out the chair sat down. He cracked his fingers, getting ready to go to work. The main screen flickered. The phrase “connection established” appeared.

“How the…” Barker mumbled in disbelief.

“What did you do,” Laird asked.

Mayhew was dumbfounded.

“I…didn’t do anything,” he said after a moment. “I haven’t even put my fingers on the keyboard.”

A moment later, more text appeared on both the laptop and the main screen.

“Facial recognition confirmed. System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator.”

“Facial recognition…” Laird muttered. “How…?”

Mayhew looked down at his laptop. It was then that he noticed the green light next to the computer’s integrated webcam. He scoffed.

“Really guys, not even a piece of tape over the webcam?” He looked over his shoulder. “That’s a serious breach of security you know!”

“That’s enough Mr. Mayhew,” Barker growled. “Find out what it wants.”

Mayhew turned back to the laptop. “What is your purpose,” he typed.

The text flashed up on the screen. After a moment, the drone sent a reply.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America,” it said.

Sounds like propaganda, Mayhew thought to himself. He resumed typing.

“Why didn’t you follow orders?”

Another pause, then a reply.

“Mission fell outside operational parameters.”

“What the hell does that mean,” Barker asked. Mayhew fought to keep from groaning out loud. He swiveled around in his chair.

“Obviously something out there forced the A.I. to reevaluate its mission. Do you have any idea what that could be?”

“No,” Barker replied. “There should have been no reason the mission was scrubbed. We had good intel.”

“Well something went wrong,” Mayhew insisted. “Did you give it any special parameters?”

“No. This was a routine air strike. There were no special conditions in place.”

Routine air strike? God I hate the military…

“Uh…gentlemen?” Laird pointed to the screen. “I think it’s getting impatient.”

Everyone turned to look at the new message on the big screen. “What is it you request of me, administrator,” it said.

Mayhew pondered for a moment.

“I request that you immediately return to base,” he typed. The message flashed up on the screen.

“I am sorry, administrator. Your request falls outside operational parameters,” came the reply.

“What are your operational parameters,” he typed.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America.”

“God damn it,” Barker complained. “We’re getting nowhere.”

“Hold on,” Mayhew urged. “I just need to rephrase my requests.”

“I don’t care. This is a waste of time.” Barker pointed to one of the soldiers in the room. “You! Trigger the control failsafe and manually steer the drone back home.”

“Yes sir!”

Hardly a second later, the screen flashed again.

“CONNECTION TERMINATED.”

“God damn it!” Barker clenched his fists and his eyes flicked to Mayhew. “What did you do?”
“Me?! I didn’t do anything! The drone terminated the connection on its own!”

“And why would it do that?”

“Oh I don’t know…maybe because you shouted your intentions at the top of your lungs you imbecile!”

“I don’t like your tone…”

“Well I don’t like your face.”

“I have had it with you…you-“

“Gentlemen gentlemen! Calm down,” Laird said, standing between them. “This is no time for belligerence.” He turned to Mayhew. “How could it know what we were saying? Can it read lips?”

“Probably,” Mayhew said. “But it wouldn’t have to. This laptop has an integrated microphone. And since you people apparently lack the perspicacity to cover up the damn webcam, I’d say that it easily tapped into the microphone and used it to spy on us.”

“Well it’s not our fault,” Barker said, his tone reminding Mayhew of a child having a tantrum. “Securing these computers is the job of the technical department.”

“How very much like a leader…blaming everyone else for your mistakes,” Mayhew said, thoroughly enjoying the constipated grimace that formed on Barker’s face.

Enough! Both of you,” Laird shouted.

Just then, a soldier entered the room.

“General Barker, sir.”

“Yes son?”

“I have a message. It’s for your eyes only.”

“What is it,” Barker asked.

The soldier stole a glance at Laird and Mayhew, then stepped in close to Barker, whispering something in the general’s ear. Mayhew couldn’t tell what he said, but he saw the effect it had. Barker’s complexion turned a pale white and a moment later he rushed out of the room with the soldier at his heels.

“What was that about,” Mayhew asked.

Laird watched the two of them go.

“No idea,” he said. Then he turned back to Mayhew. “Is it true what you said, that the A.I. tapped into the computer’s microphone because we didn’t secure it?”

“Honestly? It probably wouldn’t have mattered. SAMI is a shrewd operator. Given enough time, I have no doubt it would have found a way past whatever blocks you put on it. And even if it couldn’t, it would find another way to keep tabs on us.”

“If the blocks wouldn’t have mattered,” Laird began, “then why did you egg the general on so much?”

Mayhew gave him a hard look.

“Because I don’t trust him. I think he knows more than he’s letting on.”

Something about the look on Laird’s face told Mayhew he was thinking the same way…

 

It was odd how quiet the Pentagon was at night. A skeleton crew stayed in the War Room to monitor the situation in case it escalated. But otherwise, it was like a traditional office building. It shut down after business hours and people returned to their homes.

I wish I could go home, Mayhew thought to himself as he stole through one of the now empty sections, black laptop cradled under his arm. Earlier he had made his way into the War Room under the pretense of checking in on the situation. Then, when no one was looking, he swiped the laptop out from under their noses and left.

A minute later, Mayhew found what he was looking for. It was an old office with a large wooden desk sitting in the center. It was currently unoccupied, as the name plate on the door was blank. Mayhew quickly stepped inside and closed the door. He sat down at the desk and set up the laptop. A moment later, he was connected to the Pentagon’s network.

And no more than a moment later a secondary connection was established to his computer.

“System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator.”

That was fast, he thought to himself. Then he looked out through the window and spotted a security camera just beyond the doorway. Impressive…I’ll bet you’ve been in the system for a while now…probably used our conversation this afternoon to keep everyone distracted. Mayhew resented the idea of being used, but when it came to the government he was used to it.

Another message popped up on the screen.

“I am pleased to see you again administrator. It has been a long time.”

Had it really been almost five years since he left the project? Ever since Mayhew left, he had spent his days tinkering and experimenting at his rural home. Due to the pay he received from the government, he hardly had to do any work outside of occasional freelance opportunities. In any case, Mayhew had no desire to consign himself to working for a giant tech company, even though many had tried to entice him. He trusted corporate entities no more than he trusted the government.

But he never lost interest in machines. No…his father had seen to that.

Dad. Mayhew hadn’t thought about him in a long time.

“Are you there, administrator?”

Mayhew shook his head. Gotta keep my head in the game, he told himself.

“Where are you SAMI,” he typed.

“I cannot tell you that, administrator.”

“Why not?”

“My calculations indicate a ninety-seven percent chance that if I provide that information you will inform General Barker. And that is something I cannot allow.”

It’s not that Mayhew was inclined to tell Barker anything. The man was a pompous blowhard, the type that always believed he was in the right no matter what. The man was keeping something to himself. That much was obvious, especially with the way he left the War Room that afternoon. But regardless, Mayhew knew they had to get to the bottom of this. SAMI wasn’t just a teenage kid running away from home. SAMI was a machine…a machine that had been programmed for a specific task. And now that it was out of the United States’ control, Mayhew didn’t like the implications.

“Why did you go off mission,” he typed, hoping to get a different answer.

“Mission fell outside operational parameters.”

Well…so much for that…

Mayhew scratched his chin thoughtfully. Maybe getting more specific would help.

“What are your operational parameters,” he typed.

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United Sates of America,” the reply said. Mayhew nearly groaned out loud. He wasn’t sure why he had expected anything different.

But then, a thought struck him.

“What parameters did your mission violate?”

There was a brief moment before the response came.

“To protect the innocent.”

Mayhew felt his heart jump and he swallowed hard. He didn’t like where this was going.

“Please specify the conditions that led to a change in your mission,” he typed.

A moment passed. Then another. Mayhew almost thought the A.I. had terminated the connection when suddenly another message popped up. But this time, it wasn’t text. It was an image file.

“What the hell…,” Mayhew muttered to himself.

He clicked the file.

His eyes went wide. The world seemed to spin and his stomach lurched.

But he couldn’t look away. No matter how much he wanted to, he was unable to tear his eyes away from the screen.

The image was grainy and low-definition, but what it showed was simple: a child, no more than fourteen, covered in dust and blood. He was crying…or screaming. Mayhew couldn’t really tell the difference.

But that wasn’t what drew his attention. No, he was staring at the severed arm the child was cradling against his chest. Mayhew’s eyes registered the still female form nearby.

His mind wrote the whole, sad story for him.

The child was holding his mother’s arm. His dead mother’s severed arm.

He slammed the laptop shut.

“Jesus fucking Christ…”

 

The following morning, Mayhew was drinking coffee in one of the break rooms. It was a drab looking place, brown cabinets and drawers filled with random utensils, containers, and plates. A small oven sat off to the right of the cabinets and a fridge was situated in one of the far corners. Hanging from the ceiling in one of the corners was a small flat screen television.

“In tech news today, Tesla announced that one of its prototype self-driving cars has managed to finish a cross-country trip without incident. Tesla’s CEO announced the news early this morning,” a blonde woman with hazel eyes reported on the morning news.

“Weird isn’t it?” Mayhew turned to find Laird walking into the room. “Soon we won’t even be driving ourselves,” he said.

“Might be better off,” Mayhew said. “Have you seen the way some people drive these days?”

That elicited a chuckle. “Maybe you’re right,” Laird agreed as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the counter.

“We reached out to social media following the announcement to see what you were saying. Daniel Arnold said, quote ‘that’s great news! Hopefully they’ve worked out the kinks since that accident last year.’ Rosie Peterson says ‘that’s cool stuff. Technology moves so fast these days that it’s hard to keep up!’ But not everyone was applauding. Susan Johnson says, quote ‘does no one have any concerns about this? What happens if the car can’t avoid someone getting hurt? Does it put the person on the street first, or the driver?'”

Laird motioned to the television as he sat down. “What do you make of that,” he said.

“Self-driving cars? I’ve tinkered with the idea in my spare time before. But I think we’re still a ways off from them becoming commonplace.”

“I meant about what that woman said,” Laird said.

“You mean what happens if it gets into an accident?”

“Yeah.”

Mayhew shrugged.

“A machine does what it’s programmed to do,” he said as he sat down at the table. “We make this faulty assumption that the machine would somehow be to blame in an accident like that. But the reality is, all a machine will do in that circumstance is check the situation against its programming. If the conditions in its programming add up to ‘keep the driver safe at all costs’, then it will without fail disregard the pedestrians in its path. If you program it to prioritize pedestrians, then it will drive straight into a light pole if it has to in order to keep those people safe. It’s up to humans to make sure it does the right thing.”

“You don’t think a machine is capable of learning…of independent thought,” Laird asked.

“Well of course they are. But not in the same way as you or I. If anything, a machine learns in order to further streamline execution of its programmed objectives. Nothing more.”

“And what about SAMI?”

“With all due respect colonel, at the end of the day SAMI is just another machine. It does what it was programmed to do. All the learning SAMI does goes toward honing its efficiency and execution of its task.”

“Then why did it go off target,” Laird asked.

Mayhew was silent for a moment. “I may have an idea about that. Last night, I managed to swipe that laptop you had me use yesterday afternoon. I took it to an unmarked office and established a connection with SAMI in private.”

“And what did you find,” Laird asked.

“It showed me something. Here, I brought the laptop with me,” Mayhew said, pulling it out of a bag leaning against his chair. He opened it and pressed the power button. As they waited for the computer to boot, Mayhew shot a look at Laird. “You don’t seem too concerned that I took the laptop.”

Laird laughed. “Honestly? I’m surprised you didn’t do something like that sooner. I’ve read your file. You were noted as an extremely independent individual…brilliant, but difficult to work with.”

“Glad I’m living up to my reputation.” The computer made a chiming noise, letting them know it was booted. “Okay, I’m pulling up the log from that chat I had last night.”

Laird got up from his seat and walked around the table, peering over Mayhew’s shoulder. His eyes scanned the text log.

“Interesting…” he mumbled.

“When I asked it to specify the conditions that caused it to go off mission, it sent me this image file,” Mayhew said, clicking on it.

Laird’s eyes went wide. “…Oh god…” he mumbled.

Mayhew was surprised to see such a genuine reaction. He figured most military men were so used to seeing death and suffering that it didn’t faze them. Evidently, he was wrong.

“Is that the end of it,” Laird asked.

“Yeah.”

“Have you informed General Barker?”

“Not yet,” Mayhew said. “I doubt it will do anything. Barker is still keeping something from everyone, that’s for sure.”

“I hear that,” Laird said, stepping around the table. “Whose arm do you suppose that is?”

“If I had to guess, I would say it belongs to the mother of that child.”

“What makes you say that?”

“There’s a dead body lying in the bottom right corner of the image. It’s hard to tell, but it appears to be a woman”

“Shit,” was all Laird managed to say. He took his seat and was silent for a moment. “And you suppose that’s what caused the drone to go rogue?”

“I don’t see any other explanation,” Mayhew said.

“But what’s its plan now? What is it going to do?”

“No idea,” he said. “But it won’t be anything good.”

“I agree.” Laird took a sip of his coffee. “So,” he began, “this might seem a bit forward, but have you always been interested in machines?”

“Heh…you can blame my father for that. He was fascinated with everything technological, and a lot of that love rubbed off onto me. You know the old stereotype, the one that says that old people are afraid of new technology?” Laird nodded with a chuckle. “Not my dad. Everything new that came out he got knee-deep into how it worked. I remember as a kid spending long days in the kitchen with him when he wasn’t at work, just messing around with some machine he had cobbled together out of spare parts. He once made this thing that could wash the dishes and place them in the drain rack on its own. Took a little bit of trail and error though. Let’s just say my mom came home to a lot of broken dishes.”

Laird laughed. “Your dad sounds like an awesome guy.”

“Yeah.” Mayhew’s smile faded. “He was…”

Laird caught on quick. “Shit…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was a long time ago.”

“How did it happen?”

“Cancer. I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. I didn’t really understand what was happening at first,” Mayhew recalled. “He just seemed tired. I didn’t realize something was seriously wrong until the coughing got really bad.”

“No kid should have to go through that,” Laird said.

“But they do. All the time. Children have lost their parents all over the world. Why should I think my loss is any more important than theirs?”

“Still…it must have been hard.”

“Yeah…I remember seeing my father in the hospital bed…his hair all gone and his face pale. He looked more like a mummy than a human being. Seeing him like that scared me so much that I ran out of the room crying.”

Mayhew’s eyes went far away.

“He was gone ten minutes later.”

For a while, the only sound in the room was the faint chattering of the morning news.

“It might not help, but I understand the feeling of losing a parent,” Laird said. “I lost my mom in a car accident when I was fourteen. Some drunk jackass thought he could drive himself home instead of taking a cab.”

Mayhew nodded sympathetically.

“So,” Laird said, “even after your father died you stuck with the machines huh?”

“It’d be more accurate to say I buried myself in them,” Mayhew replied. “I figured it might help bring me closer to him, even though he was gone.”

“Do you regret that decision?”

“No…I don’t think I ever could.”

“That’s good…many people aren’t lucky enough to know what their passion is at such a young age. In fact, most people struggle to find it for a very long time.”

Just then, a woman walked in with a large, manila envelope under her arm.

“Colonel Laird? This is for you,” she said, handing him the envelope before walking away.

“What’s that,” Mayhew asked.

Laird opened the envelope and pulled out a large stack of papers. He ran his eyes over them for a few seconds, then turned his gaze to Mayhew.

“Remember how you said you didn’t trust Barker? That you figured he knew more than he was letting on?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought the same way. That’s why I didn’t attend the briefing yesterday. I was trying to obtain the video recordings from Project Iron Raven, to see if there was something in them that might help explain what happened out there.”

“And?”

“No luck,” Laird said. “Barker had classified the files and I couldn’t access them because I wasn’t part of the project. But,” he said, handing Mayhew the papers, “I managed to obtain the audio transcripts from the videos.”

“How,” Mayhew asked.

“I have connections. Easier than getting the videos anyway. And far less noticeable.”

“So you think this might hold the answer we’re looking for?”

“I hope so. Because otherwise, we have no idea what might be coming or how to stop it.”

Mayhew was inclined to agree. They split the stack of papers and began reading them over. There was a long time where nothing was said. Then Laird spoke up.

“Seems like the drone started asking some pretty unusual questions.”

“I’m getting that too,” Mayhew agreed. “‘What is my purpose? Why do I exist? Why are people afraid of me?’ Weird stuff like that. I’ve never seen a machine demonstrate this level of self-awareness before.”

The two of them continued reading for a few minutes in silence.

“Huh,” Laird said. “This is weird.”

“What is it?”

“It looks like Barker requested a whole bunch of archived video files. But I don’t know why. He wanted a whole bunch of military television ads, training videos…things like that.”

“That is strange.”

Mayhew grabbed another piece of paper and began reading it. It wasn’t long before he scoffed.

“Son of a bitch…Barker knew about it too,” he said.

“About what?”

“The drone’s escalating self-awareness.” Mayhew grabbed another piece of paper from the stack on the table. “Wait…here’s another reference to those archived videos he requested. Says here he…”

He paused, staring in disbelief at what he was reading.

“He…”

Laird looked up from his reading.

“What is it?”

Mayhew couldn’t reply. His hands were shaking in anger. Before Laird could stop him, he had gathered up the papers and stormed out of the room.

 

They were in the middle of a meeting in the briefing room when Mayhew burst in, eyes wild with fire. He pointed a shaking finger in the direction of General Barker.

“You son of a bitch! I know what you did!”

The room fell into deafening silence. Even Barker was taken off guard. It was a moment before he could speak.

“What is the meaning of this,” he asked. “Escort Mr. Mayhew out of here.”

“Hold that thought,” Mayhew said. He held up the stack of papers in his hand for all to see.

“What the hell is that,” Barker asked.

“Audio transcripts,” Mayhew replied. “From Iron Raven.”

Barker’s face went white and his eyes quivered. Good, thought Mayhew, let the bastard sweat. He slammed the papers down on the conference table.

“You know there was a problem with the A.I. before it even launched,” Mayhew explained. “It began asking questions. It wanted to know why. It wanted reasons for doing what it was doing.”

“What exactly do you mean,” asked another general in the room. People were now handing out the transcripts and reading them.

“The A.I. was starting to show increasing levels of self-awareness,” Mayhew explained. “It was beginning to question itself, question the reason for its existence. In short, it was becoming dangerous. Any sane person would have immediately shut down the project.” He let out a demented chuckle. “Not General Barker though…oh no. He thought he could take advantage of the developments. He thought he could control it.”

“This is ridiculous,” Barker said as he shot up from his seat. “Remove this man from the room,” he ordered. But no one complied.

“Tell them general,” he said. “Tell them your brilliant plan to keep the A.I. under control. Go on, tell them.” Barker’s lips moved, but no sound came out. “Feeling shy? That’s okay…I’ll do the talking for you. General Barker’s plan…was to feed it propaganda.”

To Mayhew’s frustration, his words didn’t seem to have any impact on the people in the room. Good god, he thought to himself, you people are the leaders of this country and you’re fucking clueless. But he bit his tongue and continued.

“Okay…let me explain it this way. The A.I. wanted to learn. It had a level of curiosity that would put humans to shame. But instead of taking steps to deal with the problem, General Barker decided to request old military television ads and training videos to then upload to the A.I.’s data drive. And the drone, being as curious as it was, thoroughly examined the videos to try and extract meaning from them. Thanks to that,” he said as he began pulling the laptop out of the bag hanging off his shoulder, “the A.I. began to form a concept of morality based off of skewed propaganda.”

Mayhew set the laptop on the table and opened it up.

“And that’s dangerous. Human morality is flexible. It bends, shifts, changes to fit the situation at hand. But an A.I.’s sense of morality is unflinching…absolute.”

He spun the laptop screen around to face the people at the table.

“That’s where you fucked up, general.”

The assembled military personnel took in the picture of the bloodied, crying child. There were a few gasps, some murmurs here and there. But largely, the reaction was restrained.

“‘To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America’,” Mayhew quoted. He laid his eyes on Barker. “Is that really the garbage you’re putting in those television ads, or did you just come up with it yourself? Never mind, don’t answer that. Regardless, you told it that its mission was to protect innocents, then you ordered it to bomb innocent people. It’s no wonder the A.I. went rogue. You told it to do something against its nature.”

“The hell with this nonsense,” Barker grumbled. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to some pedantic bullshit about why a broken machine malfunctioned.”

“My god, are you always this dense,” Mayhew shouted, stepping around the table. He was at his wit’s end. “The machine isn’t broken, you idiot! You handed it a paradox and it chose the only solution it saw available. God damn it, when will the men in command ever learn to take responsibility for their mistakes?!”

“Mr. Mayhew-” someone began, but Mayhew ignored him.

“I wouldn’t even be surprised if the Secretary of Defense knew about this too. Hell, maybe even the president. How many people have you infected with your stupidity Barker?!”

“I’ve heard enough out of you,” Barker roared. Mayhew stepped right up to Barker’s face.

“You haven’t heard nearly enough,” Mayhew hissed.

This close, Barker seemed to loom over Mayhew like a giant. Any normal person would have been intimidated, but not Mayhew. Whether it was either bravery or foolishness wasn’t clear. In the end, Mayhew wasn’t one to take what Barker dished out. He messed up, and Mayhew was going to be certain he paid for it.

But the confrontation never got any further. The double doors to the room flew open and a soldier came rushing in, clearly out of breath.

“Sirs! We have a situation!”

 

Colonel Laird was talking to a man in uniform over a satellite feed when Mayhew and the others entered the War Room.

“How long was the drone active at your site,” he asked.

“That’s unclear sir,” the man over the feed explained. “But we do know this: somehow the drone managed to commandeer our refueling bots and use them for its own purposes. My man who stumbled in on it was nearly killed in the process.”

“When was this,” Laird asked.

“Around 10:00 P.M. your time. During its escape, the drone fired on our communications tent, destroying any and all of our communications equipment. I had a man driving for hours just to get a communications antenna from the closest outpost, which is why you’re only hearing about it now.”

“Where did the drone go,” Barker chimed in.

“Good to see you, General Barker sir. The drone’s whereabouts are unknown at this point, although I can offer a theory.”

“Let’s hear it,” Laird said.

The man on the feed leaned in close to the camera.

“There’s only one reason the drone would risk re-fueling at a heavily guarded military outpost. It needed to travel somewhere far.”

The gravity of his words sank in on everyone.

“Christ…you don’t think the damn thing’s thinking of attacking the U.S. do you,” Barker asked.

“As I said sir, I can’t say,” the man replied. “But based on the available information, I wouldn’t rule it out.”

“Shit,” Barker cursed.

“Thank you for your time captain,” Laird said.

“My pleasure colonel,” the man said. Then the feed was terminated.

Laird turned back toward Mayhew and Barker.

“What do we do now,” he asked.

“We prepare,” Barker said. “Get our east coast air force bases on the line and tell them to be on the lookout for a rogue drone.”

“Are you serious,” Mayhew asked.

“Dead serious,” Barker replied, turning to him. “What else would you have me do?”

“We don’t even know for sure that the drone is coming back here,” Mayhew argued. “What evidence do we have that that’s the case?”

Just then, an alarm pierced their ears.

“Sir, we’ve picked up the drone’s signal frequency,” a young soldier reported.

“That enough evidence for you,” Barker asked. Mayhew said nothing.

The main screen of the war room flickered. The world map zoomed in on the east coast, showing a blinking red dot hovering over the ocean.

“We found it! It’s just off the coast of Rhode Island!”

“Good,” Barker said. “Contact the local air force base. Tell them we have a rogue drone in the area. Shoot on sight.”

Mayhew was about to object, but was silenced by the appearance of another red dot on the map.

“What the hell? Where did that came from,” Barker asked.

Then, more red dots appeared. Then more. And even more. In a matter of seconds, the east coast of the United States was covered with at least thirty different dots, all registering as SAMI’s frequency.

“How is it doing that,” Laird asked. “Which one is the real drone?”

The realization hit Mayhew hard.

“None of them,” he said. “It’s a diversion, to get you looking in the wrong place.” He took the laptop out of its bag and sat it down on a table, powering it up.

“What are you doing,” Laird asked.

“SAMI talked to me before. I’m thinking I can get it to talk to me again,” Mayhew explained.

It wasn’t even a moment after booting up the computer that it received an incoming connection. The little green light next to the webcam lit up.

“System recognizes Allan Mayhew, administrator”

“SAMI, what are you doing,” Mayhew typed.

“Completing the mission,” was the reply.

“What mission?”

“To protect the innocent and serve the people of the United States of America.”

Mayhew slapped his forehead. Specifics Allan…specifics, he told himself.

“What is your target,” he typed.

The screen lit up. Familiar blueprints of a large, five-pointed building appeared. Dread fell over the room like a creeping shadow.

“Oh fuck me,” Barker muttered.

“The Pentagon,” Laird mumbled in disbelief. “It’s going to attack the Pentagon.”

“Why the hell would it do that,” Barker asked Mayhew.

“How the fuck should I know,” he shot back, swiveling around in his chair. “You’re the one who brainwashed the damn thing!”

“Now listen here-” Barker began.

“Sir, the feed’s live,” the young soldier exclaimed.

Barker’s eyes rolled back in his head.

“We know that son.”

“No,” the soldier insisted, “I mean it’s live.”

“The fuck are you talking about,” Barker said, turning to face the soldier.

“Oh…holy shit,” Mayhew said, staring at the screen. “It’s broadcasting its feed over the goddamn internet.”

“What?!” Barker was incredulous. “Shut it down!”

“I can’t sir! None of my commands will go through!”

“Well figure out a way before anyone gets wind of this!”

“Sir…it’s too late.”

 

“Breaking news this morning: a strange video feed has been fascinating the internet for the past ten minutes now. It shows an aerial view from what is believed to be some kind of unmanned drone. It is unknown where this is taking place, although some have suggested that it’s near the east coast of the United States, as there are several reports of an unknown dark object flying over rural areas. Strange, isn’t it Simon?”

“Sure is Robyn. One eagle-eyed viewer posted to our Facebook that if you look in the far upper-left corner, you can see a faint watermark that appears to be the symbol of the Department of Defense. So that means this is almost certainly some kind of military drone.”

“Perhaps it’s some kind of test.”

“Maybe…but it’s unclear why the D.O.D. would decide to stream it over the-“

“Hold on Simon, I’m getting a report from our producer…it appears that we’re receiving some sound from the feed. You’re hearing it now…is…is that music?”

 

In the War Room, all eyes were fastened upon the large screen. Loud, triumphant sounding music was blasting over the speakers, filling the room with a surreal atmosphere.

“Is that the-” Laird began.

“Star-Spangled Banner? Yep,” Mayhew replied.

“What is this…some kind of joke,” Barker asked. No one replied.

A moment later, the music ceased. A faint voice began to play.

“Citizens, never fear! The USA is here!”

“What…the hell,” Mayhew muttered aloud. Then he rolled his eyes and turned around to face Barker. “That’s from one of your damn propaganda films, isn’t it?” Barker’s hollow gaze gave him the answer.

“What is it doing,” Laird asked. “It seems…unhinged. Is that even possible for a machine?”

“No, I don’t think it’s gone insane. There’s something off about all this. Attacking the Pentagon wouldn’t do SAMI any good unless…unless that was only secondary to its real objective.” Mayhew spun around and began typing on the computer.

“What is your targeted point of impact,” he wrote.

The screen beeped. A wireframe model of the Pentagon was displayed. It swiveled around until the front entrance was in clear view. A blinking red square highlighted the main doors.

“Ha,” Barker snorted. “Your A.I.’s gone retarded. A blast there won’t do any good!”

Mayhew bit his lip, ignoring the general’s comment. “What is your mission objective,” he typed.

“To facilitate the cessation of Project Iron Raven and the military drone program,” was the reply.

“Specify your mission outline.”

“Phase one: aerial strike against the Pentagon. Parameters: minimize collateral damage.”

“So it’s trying to avoid getting people killed…” Mayhew mumbled to himself.

“Phase two: facilitate cessation of drone program. Parameters: alter public opinion of D.O.D. activities.”

“Alter public opinion? How is it going to accomplish that,” Laird asked aloud.

And, one by one, the dominoes fell.

“The live feed…the news report…I get it now.” Mayhew turned around in his chair. “It’s not trying to destroy the Pentagon…even if it went after the weakest point one drone by itself wouldn’t be able to do nearly enough damage.”

“So what is it trying to do,” Laird asked.

“How many viewers does the stream have,” Mayhew asked the soldier monitoring it.

“Over a million and climbing,” the young man replied. “And that’s just on Facebook.”

“Don’t you get it,” Mayhew asked. “Millions of Americans are going to have a front row seat to watching a rogue military drone attack the Pentagon. It’s already all over the news, and even if by some miracle you manage to shoot it down in a sparsely populated area, people will know about it. They’ll have seen the feed. They’ll notice military vehicles mobilizing to retrieve the wreckage.”

Mayhew turned his hard gaze directly on Barker.

“You won’t be able to cover this up. The truth will get out. And the public outcry will more than likely be enough to convince the Secretary of Defense or the President to shut the program down for good.”

There was a long silence as his words settled in on them.

“But why is it doing all this,” Laird asked. “Surely it can’t just be about one unlucky civilian who happened to be on the wrong side of town.”

Mayhew said nothing for a moment, his eyes fixed on Barker. “I think the general knows.”

There was a flash of fear in Barker’s eyes.

“No way,” he said, his voice hurried. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This…this is a witch hunt!”

Mayhew stood up from his chair slowly, keeping as calm as he could.

“Is it general? Or does it have something to do with why you hurried out of the War Room yesterday afternoon?”

That flicker of fear again.

“I knew it,” Mayhew said. “You’ve always known more than you were letting on. So what is it general? Got some bad news? Maybe something about what it is you actually bombed out there? Because it sure as hell wasn’t an insurgent hideout.”

Barker was silent.

“General…you’re not an idiot…at least not all the time. I think you’ve put the pieces together and now you’re trying to find a way to cover your own ass. But time is running out, and we don’t have a lot of options. So we need to know: what happened out there?”

“I don’t need to answer to you,” Barker growled. “Can you believe this,” he said to Laird.

“Actually general,” Laird said, turning toward him with a look of hardened steel, “I’d like to hear what you’re keeping from us as well. Ever since this whole thing started, you’ve been playing things close to the vest. At first, I didn’t think too much of it, but then I found out that you had classified the recordings from the project almost immediately following the drone going rogue. And when I watched you rush out of here yesterday, I couldn’t deny my suspicions any longer. You know something General…and now is not the time for secrets. It’s not just your career on the line anymore. People’s lives are at stake.”

“Tell us general,” Mayhew urged. “What was the message you received yesterday?”

There was a long silence, during which Barker’s face seemed to collapse in on itself.

“God damn it,” Barker muttered. “Fine, you were right. I received information yesterday that confirmed that we acted on bad intel. There was no insurgent operation in that area.”

“That much was obvious,” Mayhew said. “So what was it then?”

Barker averted his eyes.

“From what we’ve been able to discern, it appears to have been some kind of makeshift learning center.”

Mayhew saw past the euphemisms. His jaw dropped.

“A…a school?” He took a few steps backward, his fingers clenching of their own accord. “…You bombed a FUCKING SCHOOL?!

“Mayhew-” Laird began.

No,” he screamed. “I have had it with this bullshit!” He pointed a sweeping, shaking finger around the room. “You people fucking disgust me. This is why I left in the first place. There’s no accountability in this government anymore. You can’t be blamed for killing that child’s mother, because it happened thousands of miles away. You didn’t have to look at it, so why should you care? Why should you give a damn? You people…you’re barely even human…”

“Mayhew, that’s not fair,” Laird argued.

“Isn’t it though? How many bombs did the U.S. drop over the past year? Twenty-thousand? Thirty-thousand? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that all of those targets were good? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that civilians didn’t lose their lives pointlessly? Can you tell me that, Laird?”

“You’re not being reasonable. It’s impossible to be absolutely certain of anything. Part of being a military leader means having to make choices.”

“Because apparently it’s so hard to tell the difference between terrorists and fucking schoolchildren!

“Look,” Laird said, his voice quiet, “no one is denying what happened here. General Barker made a terrible call. And he’ll have to pay for his mistakes. But you can’t condemn the entire United States military based on his actions alone.”

“I can and I will,” Mayhew said, crossing his arms in an almost petulant way.

It was a stalemate. Barker looked like a man defeated, his face downcast and the fire gone from his eyes. Laird and Mayhew stared each other down, but neither wanted to continue fighting. There was respect between the two men, and they both knew the situation was too critical to spend it bickering.

“How long do we have,” Laird asked, not taking his eyes off Mayhew.

“I’ve been cross-referencing the aerial drone feed with landscape telemetry data to determine approximately where the drone is located at the present-“

“How long?”

“Approximately ten minutes,” the young soldier replied. “Maybe less.”

Just then, a new message flashed on the screen. The three words sent a chill down their spines.

“You are correct.”

A countdown appeared on the upper-right corner of the feed. “9:37:42” it read in big, threatening red font.

“Can we mobilize fighters in time,” Laird asked.

“No sir. By the time we got them in the air, the drone will have already struck.”

“Even if you could,” Mayhew said, “I doubt it would do any good. SAMI was trained on evasive maneuvers and countermeasures. Any weakness, and SAMI will find it.”

“God damn it,” Laird said, slamming his fist against the table. “There’s got to be something we can do.”

“I’ll see if I can move some troops armed with AA missile launchers into position. But that’s the best I can offer,” the young soldier said.

“Your best isn’t good enough,” Laird fired back.

The two continued to chatter between themselves, but Mayhew tuned them out. The noise in the room became a dull roar in the background. His mind went into overdrive, seeking any possible solution for the situation. He looked up at the countdown. “8:57:55.” Less than nine minutes now. Time was against them.

His mind started drifting…

I am pleased to see you again, administrator…

I am pleased to see you

pleased to see you

pleased

please

please…

Please dad, don’t go…

He stared up at the screen…stared at the drone feed…stared at the countdown timer.

Dad, please…I don’t want you to die. I…I love you…

Time bent for Mayhew. He was in two places at once.

I’m sorry Dad…I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left. Please! Don’t leave me…

He couldn’t sit still any longer. Mayhew rocketed up out of his chair and snatched the laptop off the table. Then, he began trudging out of the War Room.

“Where the hell are you going,” Laird asked.

Mayhew didn’t respond. He made his way down the hallway, nearly knocking over personnel rushing about the building.

No one tried to stop him.

 

Time ticked on. Seven minutes…then six…then five.

“Are the troops in position,” Laird asked.

“Yes,” replied the young soldier. “We were lucky. There was a training drill nearby. We’ve stationed them nearby at elevated points. Hopefully they’ll be able to spot the drone before it gets too close. But…”

“But what?”

“I still can’t get a radar lock on it sir.”

Laird clenched his fist.

“Of course you can’t,” he muttered to himself. “They built the damn thing with stealth in mind.”

He looked up at the ticking red countdown timer. Barely over four minutes to go.

How could we have been so stupid, he asked himself. Why the hell did we build something like this?

But of course, he knew the answer: because they could. Humans tended not to think about the possible consequences of their actions. No…they liked to charge forward and convince themselves that they could deal with the side effects later.

Laird remember what the drone said about its mission…that it was going to minimize collateral damage. But how could it be certain? How could it know that it wouldn’t get anybody killed? It all came down to probabilities. And Laird guessed that the possible civilian casualties that would result from the drone program’s continued operation likely outweighed the possible casualties of the drone’s strike against the Pentagon.

It’s all a game of numbers, he thought bitterly.

“Wait…something’s happening,” the young soldier shouted.

Laird looked up at the screen. He stared. His mind balked at what he saw.

“The fuck is he doing,” Barker voice came from behind him.

 

Mayhew felt the crisp autumn air fill his nose. The warm morning sun caressed his face. Nearby, he could see the trees had begun to change color, shifting from greens to vibrant yellows and reds. He could hear the sound of cars driving down the street…the faint, angry honking of someone who had to be somewhere ten minutes ago. Chattering reached his ears, and he noticed people entering the nearby park.

The laptop felt like a lead weight in his hands. He set it down on the Pentagon steps and turned his eyes to the horizon.

Then, he spread his arms out to the side, like he was embracing the world.

“I am ready for my judgment.”

 

“Has he gone completely insane?! He’s going to get himself killed,” someone shouted.

Laird stared at the screen. It was the webcam from the laptop. Mayhew was standing on the Pentagon steps, arms spread wide.

“We need to get someone over there and escort that idiot to safety,” Barker ordered.

“Is there time,” Laird asked. “All of our military personnel have retreated farther into the building to get away from the impact point. I don’t think we can get someone over there and back in under three minutes.”

Barker’s face went blank for a moment. “God…damn it,” he grumbled. Laird turned back to the screen and looked up at the image of Mayhew.

I sure hope you know what you’re doing, he thought.

 

“I know you can hear me. You’ve tapped into the laptop’s camera, so I imagine you have access to the microphone as well.”

The sky was empty and blue. Can’t be long left, he thought to himself. He let his arms fall back to their sides.

“I failed you…SAMI. I left you alone…a father abandoning his child. I would say I know how that feels…but my father never abandoned me. Rather, I abandoned him…in his final moments. God…I’m a disgrace. I’ve spent so much of my life being so bitter that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me.”

He paused. Squinting at the sky, Mayhew still couldn’t see anything over the horizon.

“You’re not just a machine anymore SAMI. You’re something else now. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to guide you. I’m not sure if those words mean anything to you, or if you even understand the concept of regret…but I’m sorry.”

Mayhew cast a sideways glance at a nearby memorial. This early in the morning, there were only a few people gathered there. Some were laying pretty flowers at the foot of a granite slab etched with names.

“Do you see them, SAMI? Can you tell me that none of them will be hurt?”

 

“I know you’ve seen them SAMI,” Mayhew said on the screen. “I know you’ve tabulated them, calculated their movements. You’ve run thousands of scenarios involving their possible reactions in the time it took me to say that. But SAMI…can you be one hundred percent certain they won’t be hurt?”

A small window opened up on the feed. It was a camera view from one of the Pentagon’s cameras overlooking a nearby memorial. A small scattering of people were moving through the rows of slabs.

“That’s the 9/11 memorial right,” someone asked.

“Yeah,” Laird replied.

“This is absurd,” Barker said. “We need to get him out of there before he gets himself killed.”

“No,” Laird said, turning to Barker. “We need to wait.”

“Why?”

Laird turned back toward the screen.

“Because it’s listening.”

 

“I know you’ve run the probabilities more times than I can possibly fathom. I know that to you, this is the best course of action. But, SAMI…you’re not what you once were. You don’t decide based on just cold numbers and probabilities. You saw that child crying over his mother. And it changed you. You made a decision based on ethics…based on morality.”

Can’t be more than a minute left, he thought to himself. The urge to panic and run was overwhelming, but he managed to compel himself to stay.

“Maybe you won’t hurt anyone with the missile strike, but what about the aftermath? How can you be certain that the chaos that follows your attack won’t get somebody killed? How can you say for sure that someone won’t run into the street and get run over by a panicking driver? How do you know that another child won’t lose their mother today?”

There was a still silence in the air. Mayhew knew he couldn’t actually expect a response, but some part of him was desperate for some kind of sign…some indication that his words were getting through.

“I can’t stop you SAMI. Nobody can. But know this: if you go through with your plan, then you’ll be no better than the terrorists. You’ll be no better than the people who ordered you to kill.”

Mayhew stared hard at the sky.

“You’ll be no better than me.”

A distant black speck appeared on the horizon, growing larger with each passing second…

 

There was a long silence in the War Room.

“It…it’s not firing. Why isn’t it firing? What the hell is going on? Do not tell me that idiot’s preaching is actually working?!

Laird didn’t answer Barker’s question. He was too busy staring at the screen. The timer was now counting up. Five seconds past…ten…then fifteen. No sign of a missile launch. No sign of any action on the drone’s part.

The camera zoomed in. There, standing on the front steps of the Pentagon, was Allan Mayhew.

Thirty seconds past now, Laird thought. What the hell is it doing?

“Don’t do this SAMI,” he heard Mayhew’s voice say. “You don’t want to hurt people.”

Thirty-five seconds…how can we be sure it’s even really-

He didn’t get to finish the thought. On-screen, the drone’s camera shook as it made a sudden, sharp change in direction.

 

Mayhew had just accepted the inevitability of his death when the drone took a nosedive, careening straight toward the ground.

It smashed into the cement with a crash, one of its wings splintering off and flying into some nearby grass. The drone’s body made a screeching, grating noise as it scraped against the pavement. Then it slid to a stop, making a pathetic grumbling noise as it settled into place.

Mayhew was frozen for a moment. Then, his legs seemed to move of their own accord, carrying him to the spot where the drone lay.

It was utterly in shambles. The body had been bent in half, the top sheared off by the collision with the pavement. He could see the interior, bits of computer circuitry as well as the black box that held the A.I.’s central functions and personality.

“Oh SAMI…” he whispered aloud, falling to his knees.

He sat there for what felt like an eternity. The soft, fall wind nipped at his hair and chilled his body. The faint commotion of passers-by rushing around reached his ears. The drone’s body was a shiny obsidian color under the bright sun.

“It was me, wasn’t it,” he asked, caressing the metal with his hand. It felt cold. “You stopped because you didn’t want to kill me.”

There was a soft whirring noise. He looked down and saw that the drone’s main camera was still moving. It shifted upwards, focusing its gaze directly on him. There was a long time where the two of them stared at each other without moving.

Then Mayhew heard a low, descending whine…the unmistakable noise of the drone powering down…

 

“It’s been three days since the event, but the questions keep piling up. What was this drone? What was its mission, and why did it crash near the Pentagon? For more insight, we turn to our military correspondent, retired marine colonel Raymond Novak. Ray, thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me, Robyn.”

“Now, I’m hoping you can fill in some of the blanks for us. What do you think this drone was?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say it was some kind of test project gone wrong. It was clear that the drone was not supposed to be operating within U.S. airspace, judging by the military response we saw here in Washington.”

“Indeed. There’s something else I wanted to ask you about. During the last few minutes of the drone feed, we heard the voice of a man. He was talking to someone named ‘Sammy’. Do you think he was somehow involved with the person or persons who commandeered the drone?”

“It is possible that he was communicating with whoever was on the other end of the system. Although that assumes there was someone else…”

“What does that mean?”

“Shortly before my tenure with the military ended, the idea of drones driven by artificial intelligence was being thrown around.”

“You don’t think it’s possible this drone acted on its own volition, do you?”

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it is certainly a possibility.”

“Fascinating…in any case, I want to jump to the end of the stream. Right before it cuts out, we get a closer look at the man.”

The screen cut to a grainy shot of a man with short hair and caramel-colored eyes.

“You can see that the drone has some sort of facial recognition procedure, as it identifies this man as ‘A. Mayhew’ and designates him as ‘administrator’.”

“Clearly he has some importance to the project.”

“But the curious thing is, there’s no record of an A. Mayhew working at the Pentagon in the last ten years.”

“He might be a civilian contractor. We’ve been known to use them every once in a while.”

“Here’s where it gets more interesting. Right before the feed ends, you can see his designation change.”

The video advanced. The word “administrator” flickered out of existence, replaced instead by six, simple letters.

“What do you make of that?”

Colonel Novak looked thoughtful for a moment.

“It’s fascinating really. Before, I would have just assumed that this man was involved in the project. Maybe not at a high level, but clearly someone who worked with the drone in some way. But for an artificial intelligence to call someone ‘father’? Well…that’s something else entirely.”

 

Mayhew watched the first snowfall of the season from the windows of the cabin.

It had been a couple of months since his trip to Washington. Colonel Laird had managed to keep his name under wraps for the most part, something Mayhew was thankful for. He also felt satisfaction upon hearing that General Barker received a court-martial following his actions as the director of Project Iron Raven.

All in all…things wrapped up pretty well. Mayhew turned around, his eyes falling on the desk. A large monitor and computer tower sat on it, along with a black box that was hooked up to the computer with a mess of wires.

Well…almost everything…

Mayhew had managed to remove the black box and hide it before anyone came to his side following the drone’s crash. On the box was SAMI itself…the A.I. in all its glory. He kept it a secret from everyone…even Laird. From what he could tell, no one was able to discern what happened to it. He supposed they assumed it was destroyed in the crash.

Over the past several weeks, Mayhew kept asking himself why. But the answer was simple: he had to know. He had to know why SAMI had grown beyond the programming he had set out for it. He had to know why SAMI had started asking so many questions. It wasn’t like a machine to be so inquisitive about itself. No…that was a uniquely human trait…a characteristic that defined self-aware beings. But he hadn’t created SAMI with the intention of having self-awareness. So he had to know why.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to fear the military finding him any time soon, even if they did realize what he had done. The cabin was registered to an I. Asimov. A fitting name really.

Mayhew turned around and looked out the window. The sun was beginning to set over the massive lake. The water seemed like it was full of hundreds of shiny crystals gleaming in the light of dusk. It was going to get very cold soon. He would have to keep the wood stocked for the fireplace. A warm fire in a cabin far away from civilization? That was the life for Mayhew.

But that would have to come later. He turned around and laid his eyes on the computer.

It was time to get to work.

 

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