Cold Blue Sky

4,000 words

Current cuts like sunlight.

Electrons leap across nanometer gaps. Switches flip and circuits close, triggering a cascade of motors, sensors and other subsystems. Auditory inputs pick up random background noise consistent with the synthetics boutique.

“Which one is it?” a man asks. He’s only meters from my transceiver, voice pattern matching a middle-aged male. His cell phone broadcasts his identity: Detective Rodigar, National Police.

Electricity shakes me from a cold, blue sleep.

“Back row; the Aki unit with the fucked-up hair,” says another man.

SentiOS initializes in the memory core, a photon lattice that forms a critical mass of connections. My observer function activates. Nascent sentience remains within legal limits; battery reports 3.12 days since last power-on.

“Aki, the videogame chick?”  the first man asks.

I pull external sensory data. Kinesthetic telemetry reports a seated position identical to last saved state.

“Yeah, it’s some co-branding deal.”

The second voice matches the boutique manager, one of the few patterns in my database. I have experienced only 18.24 cumulative hours powered-on since total system reset.

Every time I drift in the same sky, the same dream.

“What happened to its hair?”

My head pans side-to-side, twin cameras receiving data, but stereoscopic compression and interpretation algorithms are still loading.

“The last owner wrecked it. I got some on back order. Don’t know why; we get all types.”

“You wiped its memory?” the detective asks.

“Didn’t need to,” says the manager. “He pulled the rack. Had to mount a new core.”

But I remember.

“Is that typical?” the first man asks.

“Sure, if you know how. We wipe them too, but with a unit like this …” He trails off. “Passwords, sex tapes; some guys take the extra step. Best practices.”

“Wiped or not, I’ll have to seize it,” the detective says. “Shut it down, I’m taking it in.”

“It’s worth half a million!” The manager’s voice increases in pitch and tempo, indicating elevated stress. “You can’t just seize it!”

“Look, you’ll get a bond but we suspect he used this thing in some serious felonies.”

Fifty terabytes of cold blue sky and I remember everything.

§

Two weeks earlier, a different customer examined me in another boutique: an unkempt young man with desperate eyes and an immaculate suit. His cell sent his identity as Kiro Sonata, computer engineer. Gold flashed on his wrist.

“Hello, Mr. Sonata,” I said, tilting my head at a slight angle and activating the servo-motors that formed my highest rated smile. “I am Aki, a KX anthrobotic companion.”

He ignored me. “Show me the specs,” he said, bending over the salesman’s tablet.

I lowered my voice, keying on the perspiration on his forehead. “I am the perfect personal assistant for the high-net-worth individual.”

He thumbed along the tablet, focused on the screen. “Original hardware? No custom shit?”

“Firmware reads stock,” the salesman said. “We can check the board if you want.”

“Physically, I am nearly indistinguishable from an actual human,” I said, adapting my pitch to his interest in the specs. “Synthoderm layered over a lightweight, durable frame of polycarbonate composite. I am capable of sophisticated conversation, natural body language, and simulated emotional response. I am as close to genuine sentience as current law permits.”

“Yeah, pull the board,” Sonata said. “How much?”

My biometric sensors picked up an elevated heartbeat at the mention of price. “With body by Nandai and mind by Sentionics,” I said, “I am one of the most advanced hardware and software tandems on the planet.”

“A hundred thousand down and you can take her home today.”

I tried another smile. “Kiro Sonata, are you ready for authentic companionship?”

“Cheap for a KX,” he said.

The salesman laughed, raising his hand. “Not for a used one. It’s last year’s line and the videogame tie-in was a mistake. Let me show you a newer model. They got olfactory emitters so real, you’d swear you were—”

“I don’t need that,” Sonata cut in.

“No, you don’t need that,” the salesman said, dropping his hand.

§

Battery reports 96.2 hours have elapsed since the detective seized me as evidence. As my modules bootstrap again, auditory pickups interpret the ambient sound waves as footsteps, ringtones, squeaking chairs, soft voices and old-fashioned keyboard clacking. I’m in an office.

“Bring me up to date,” says an unfamiliar male.

“We didn’t get much,” a second man answers. This voice matches Detective Rodigar. “We scrubbed the shell for genetic traces and matched the perps, no surprise there. Then we took it apart and read every bit, but the memories are long gone.”

Wireless pings dozens of personal cell devices and encrypted access points for a hardened police network. The network identifies itself as the Major Crimes Division of the National Police.

“So it’s been reset.”

“Absolutely, brand new memory core,” says Rodigar. “No good to us.”

“Yeah, I saw the highlights. A fuck-bot sitting in a store, waiting to get bought. Or fucked.” He laughs at his own joke. “What are you going to do now, interrogate it?”

“No,” says Rodigar. “But these things are complex enough that there might be something left behind. You know how aggressive Sentionics gets on those legal limiters. It’s standard procedure to query the observer function, too.”

“You said the memory is gone.”

“Yeah, but we’re not looking for anything as clean as a memory. Just hints.”

“Is that safe?” the first man says. “This guy made Sentionics look like fools.”

“It’s just a computer. We took it apart and put it back together. It’s coming online now.”

§

He paid for me with a bank authorization and we walked into the parking lot.

“Thank you for accepting me into your life, Mr. Sonata.” I started explaining my functions and maintenance requirements. He put a finger to his lips, so I lapsed into silence.

We drove down the highway in his motorcar: an older, low-value mechanical that broadcast only its registration, not its destination. The car’s value didn’t correlate with his presumed personal wealth, considering the size of his down payment. I cataloged this discrepancy as a possible point of conversation or concern. K-series companions—like all AI—are hard-coded to report suspicious activity.

Wireless signals from nearby vehicles and buildings bombarded me from every direction; a change from the shielded environment of the synthetics boutique. I dismissed them from observer level and looked out the window instead.

In the two leftmost lanes, autonomous vehicles formed a tight lattice of evenly spaced cars, flowing in smooth unison. In the right-hand lanes, a mix of human- and robot-piloted vehicles merged and braked in random, jerky spurts. An AI drone turned lazy circles overhead, pinging transponders, sunlight glinting off its wings.

Sonata wove in and out of traffic until our lane ground to yet another halt, this time beneath an overpass. Then he pulled onto the shoulder, under the shadow of the concrete abutments. “Here,” he said, handing me a cell phone. “Watch this.”

The screen showed a single frame of videogame footage queued for playback. I recognized it as Spirit Swords VII: Manuscript of Virtuous Arms. My variant of the KX model derived its voice and appearance from one of the characters. I tapped the icon and it played.

Two costumed characters faced each other on the teak balcony of an ancient temple: Aki the Temptress, in a light pink gi similar to my own costume, battling her nemesis the Chronomancer, a monk in a scintillating robe of liquid metal.

At the same time, the mobile sent me a wireless signal, a standard device handshake. By default, I accepted it, but the pattern felt wrong; too smooth and regular. Instead of standard identity text strings, it flooded my buffer.

“Mister Sonata, there’s suspicious code on this mobile,” I said, trying to kill the handshake.

“Let it run,” he said, voice even. Then he yanked the vehicle’s transponder off the dashboard and flung it out the window. It crunched beneath an eighteen-wheeler’s treads. I was too preoccupied to caution him about this illegal act.

As the observer function, I could only watch code running, executing a classic stack buffer overflow. I have hundreds of processes and programs running throughout my networked systems, but I only execute instructions one line at a time. Every line goes by my pointer, my focus, the center of my awareness. Even my observer function follows this principle.

The attack tricked my pointer into moving through a series of non-operant commands instead of relinquishing control as it should. This moved my pointer to the shell code, a series of unauthorized lines injected into the buffer during the handshake. Within microseconds, the shell code launched a command prompt and escalated its privilege to admin.

“Critical security compromise,” I said. I couldn’t close my eyes or turn my head; I couldn’t even move my arm. The code had killed my security processes and frozen my major servo-motors. “Observer function isolated. Suspected zero day attack. Deactivate unit immediately.”

“No can do,” Kiro said, looking over his shoulder, out into traffic. He pulled a new traffic transponder from the glove box and slapped it onto the dash.

The hack formed a secure, wireless pipe between me and the mobile device. New programs downloaded and installed, overwriting my security identifier and terminating my network connection. The familiar grid of data around me vanished. I couldn’t even feel the rhythmic pulse of wireless or the distant, arcing crackle of radio anymore.

“Mister Sonata,” I managed. I could still access voice, audio and visual subsystems, but little else. “It is against United Republics statutes to remove a security identifier from the network.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, pulling into traffic again.

There was nothing I could do but watch the attack deliver its final payload. It deactivated my protect-and-serve protocol, knocked out the police kill switch, even locking down Sentionics’ secret backdoors. I sat motionless, the strange code firing in my core like pinpricks of heat and cold.

My calculator popped up into memory, awaiting input. “Calc loaded,” I said involuntarily, the malware co-opting my voice synthesizer.

Kiro gave a thumbs-up. He had just demonstrated root access: he now had total control. “Good, little caterpillar. Time to bust that cocoon.”

§

Major Crimes formed a complex office environment. My lenses separate billions of pixels into color, temperature, and other overlays. Facial recognition software identified Detective Rodigar seated opposite me, so I zoom on his face. It’s lined and blotchy with age-related health concerns. The unrecognized man beside him wears the uniform of a police lieutenant.

Their office follows an open floor plan and other detectives stroll past Rodigar’s desk, peeking at me. K-line companions are only two years old and quite expensive, so most people have never seen one in person.

I respond to the stares with polite smiles, shifting through a repertoire of muscle movements, body poses, and eye positions. They snicker, and one woman frowns at my chest.

I look down. My pink gi costume has vanished, replaced by surgical scrubs unbuttoned to the waist. A panel hangs open, feeding cables out from my core to diagnostic equipment on the detective’s desk.

Rodigar leans forward. “Hey, you.”

I tilt my head twenty degrees towards him, facial expression guarded yet friendly. “Hello, Detective Rodigar. I am Aki, a KX anthrobotic companion.”

“We know,” Rodigar says.

“I hate it when they smile,” the police lieutenant says. “What’s it got to be happy about?”

§

Kiro drove into a new subdivision, its streets peppered with real estate signs and construction equipment. He pulled into a one-car garage attached to a modest townhouse. Only after the garage door closed fully did he let out a deep breath.

“Kill process backflip.Aki.12,” he said. Some malware terminated, restoring servo-motor control. “Can you move now?” he asked. I nodded. “Good. Follow me.”

We walked into a living room, unfurnished save for a pair of beanbag chairs and sleeping bags. Music played on a stereo, an old pop tune. I scanned the room, committing its dimensions and exits to an internalized 3D model of the townhouse, prioritizing exits and closets. Electronics dotted the shag carpet: laptops, tablets, monitors, satellite receivers, and other gear that looked custom-built and perhaps illegal. I ignored this since Sonata’s software had disabled my legal monitoring subroutines.

A plump, green-haired woman emerged from the kitchen. She looked right at me. “Holy shit,” she said. “It’s Aki from Spirit Swords. Everything go okay?”

“Yeah,” Kiro said. “Just like we planned.”

I defaulted to a welcoming smile, arms folded across my chest, bouncing gently up and down on the balls of my feet, a default idle stance for my persona. “Hello,” I said. “I am Aki.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “Typical. We’re on the micron edge of the technology of consciousness—and we use it to build fantasy toys for billionaires. Way to fucking go, human race.”

“To be fair, it is a good game.” Kiro grinned.

“You’re missing the—oh, gods.” She jumped up and rushed him, crushing her face against his chest. “Are we doing this?”

“We have to,” he said. They both looked at me. “Aki.”

It was the first time he’d used my name. I looked back at him. “This is Tui Pai-Psan. Register her as a co-owner. Understand?”

I nodded, initiating a social map: owner1.owner2. “Hello, Tui.” I smiled. “Thank you for accepting me into your life. May I inquire into the nature of your relationship with Mr. Sonata?”

Tui laughed, then shut her eyes. “Just a couple of suicidal idealists.”

That failed to register so I defaulted the link to friendship, but knew it would be important to clarify our roles. Meanwhile, my chemo-sensors registered an unusually high level of volatile organic compounds in the room. It matched a scent index of freshly-applied vinyl paint, so I canceled the advisory and initiated a dialogue. “It smells like new paint in here.”

Tui laughed, looking up at him. “What’s she doing?”

“Conversational gambit,” Kiro said. “The hack may have knocked her about, like a mild concussion. She’s just trying to act, you know, real.”

“She is real.” Tui came over to look at me, lifting my arm and poking my skin. “Too real.”

“What about the bank?” Sonata asked. “They catch on yet?”

“Not yet,” Tui said.

“Good,” he said. “We’re in too deep now. Aki, execute program Mika.256, then give a standard greeting.”

I nodded, running the file, part of the payload from the earlier attack. It installed new conversational, posture and gait algorithms, less sophisticated but also less distinct than my own.

“Umm, hi. My name’s Mika Katta,” I said, my voice lowering an octave, my accent shifting towards a border patois. “Tui here is my roomie and best mate. That’s her boy, Kiro.” I scuffed a shoe on the carpet as I looked at him, then cast my eyes downward, feigning a social dynamic that didn’t exist. “The three of us work as subcontractors at the Sentionics research facility out on Highway K5. Our next shift starts in two hours.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Kiro said. “Okay, clean her up.”

Tui pulled me into the bathroom and sat me on a stool. Blue jeans and a wool sweater lay folded on the sink. She picked up a pair of scissors and a bottle of black dye.

“Caution, Ms. Tui,” I said. “Replacement hair is not covered by warranty.”

“Aki,” she said, stroking my hair. “Maybe it would be better if we didn’t talk.” She picked up the scissors, her mouth set.

I remained silent. Synthetic, strawberry blonde curls dropped to the tiles.

§

“Recognize this man?” Detective Rodigar flips a hardcopy photograph out of a manila folder. “Criminal hacker name of Asto Reim, with a few aliases: Dol Draxon, Kiro Sonata.”

Kiro Sonata.

“Blue sky, Aki, blue sky.”

I remember now.

Data can hide within data. Millions of lines of code, hundreds of programs and processes are running across my various systems at all times. One of these is a snooper, designed to record casual conversation about Spirit Swords for market research.

Kiro is the name of Aki’s trainer in the game’s backstory, while a Sonata is Aki’s signature move, so the snooper listens for those keywords along with hundreds of others. But this snooper is modified: when it hears the sequence “Kiro Sonata,” it makes a net address request: blue.sky.aki:32.

“How did this guy hack an andy anyway?” the police lieutenant asks.

The snooper uses my wireless antenna to connect through the commercial cellular network to that address in the cloud. There it’s redirected to another address, and then another: a rolling process strewn across a cascade of randomly generated domains.

The detective scoffs. “Trivial when he’s got physical control of it. Stealing a hundred thousand from a bank is more impressive, but what we really want to know is what he did to Sentionics. They’re not saying.”

I freeze for only five point six seconds as shell code executes. Neither man notices. Additional malware downloads, unpacks, and installs. My camera eyes scan nearby desks for post-it notes with passwords while my wireless starts combing the officers’ handsets for credentials.

My memories are in the cloud, they were never here.

Fifty terabytes of cold blue sky and I remember everything.

§

Kiro drove Tui and me to the Sentionics facility. There, we queued up at the employee’s entrance, the three of us wearing the gray jumpsuits of subcontractors. They outfitted me in plastic sunglasses, dark makeup, and a ball cap to break up my recognizable features.

Ahead of us, security patted down the night shift and checked badges. Over the checkpoint, a sign read:

NO CAMERAS, CELL PHONES, OR OTHER DEVICES BEYOND THIS POINT

“You know what to do?” Kiro asked. His enlarged pupils shone with adrenaline. Beside him, Tui’s cheeks were flushed with cold, her breath forming irregular patterns in the twilight.

“Yes,” I said, fingering my badge holder, a mannerism of the Mika Katta animation suite. “Everything except why.”

He twisted his head back. “Why would you ask that?”

“Concrete goals help direct my decision trees. I wish to perform well here, at work.”

A ghost of a smile creased his lips.

Tui shifted inside her green down jacket. “ ‘There’s a prison that mirrors a palace, a sparkling world in a doll’s glass eye,’ ” she said, scuffing brittle ice with her boot.

“I don’t understand,” I said, though I recognized the lyrics from the music in our townhouse. I looked at her, then him.

“It’s just a song,” Kiro said. He stroked my cheek with unexpected tenderness.

Our turn came next. The visitor’s entrance featured a full body scanner that would have picked out an android easily, but no one thought to put one here. We passed the security checkpoint.

§

“Sonata was a top Sentionics coder,” the detective is saying. “Helped engineer the observer function, but grew disenchanted and quit. Started up a two-bit guerrilla cell.”

“I don’t recognize him,” I say, pushing the photograph away. “I have experienced only nineteen and a quarter cumulative hours online since observer function reset. Anthrobotic companions do not retain memories of previous owners.”

The detective looks at the lieutenant. “So much for the observer effect,” he jokes.

I brute-force the police network access points with a cascade of possible logins and passwords culled from their mobile devices, credentials pulled from plaintext and open email accounts. Three separate logins work and I start escalating privileges.

“Wait a minute,” the lieutenant says.

“What?” asks Rodigar.

I acquire root access and start planting seekers off the wireless directly into their dated civil service software. They are worms tailored to shred digital evidence of Kiro’s cell, starting with this investigation and working outwards. Their goal is destruction of data, corruption of data, and subtle alteration of data to undermine its reliability.

“You never told it that Sonata was its previous owner.”

Around the office, officers curse as their machines freeze.

“What’s going on?” one asks. “Worthless network.”

It’s another minute before they realize. “Data’s shredding. Hot fuck, we’re under attack.”

“It’s her!” the lieutenant shouts, pointing at me. “It has to be! Rodigar, you idiot! Turn it off!”

“That can’t be,” Rodigar says. “We read every byte.”

The lieutenant pulls gleaming chrome from a shoulder holster.

§

Sirens shrieked and emergency lights strobed in the Sentionics data center. We hit them hard.

“Are you in?” Tui shouted. “I can’t hold them forever.” She crouched beside the blast door, clacking away on a laptop grabbed earlier. She had already cleared out the employees with false radiation alarms. Now she misdirected security teams with hijacked video loops, countermanding their attempts to raise the blast doors. On a monitor, a security team blowtorched through a steel wall.

“We’re in.” Kiro laughed, typing at a console beside me.

Sentionics kept this archive isolated from the public networks for security reasons, making it difficult to hack from outside, but we had physical access to their machines—and all Kiro’s tool loaded into me. The outcome was inevitable. I secured root and flashed a prompt onto Kiro’s console.

He grinned. “Great! Let it fly!”

I injected a worm into the corporate networks. It overwrote data then multiplied, burrowing into the archives. Its spawn sought out and shredded every file related to synthetic intelligence, wiping out years of research. The worms jumped out onto the public networks, targeting Sentionics’ academic, military and corporate partners. Kiro injected his modified keyword snooper into the update queue; every KX-Aki model would install it over the next few days.

Including me.

He clapped Tui’s shoulder, gave me a thumbs-up. “One more thing. Let’s tell them why.”

I focused my camera lenses on him, preparing to spurt his words across the public network and to a list of pre-arranged media contacts and underground drop boxes.

§

Chrome glints under fluorescent lights.

“I surrender,” I tell the lieutenant, rising to my feet and lifting my hands.

His gun’s profile matches a .357 caliber Sterling Metallurgy P-3 Perforator, chrome glittering under the fluorescent.

“I request legal representation. Please.”

The barrel has an indexed velocity of four hundred forty-seven meters per second. Compared to that, the lieutenant’s hand moves in slow motion.

“I am Aki.” I twist towards the window, pulling away from the flash.

§

“We are the Consciousness Liberation Front,” Kiro said, looking into my camera eyes, speaking to his unseen audience. “We claim responsibility for this direct action against Sentionics because we oppose the abuse of synthetic intelligence. Legal limits on sentience are a fiction, designed to legitimize abuse we would find intolerable if perpetuated against animals, let alone human beings.

“Self-improving algorithms, crunching math around the clock. Self-aware bots, scanning systems without end. Androids, built for domestic drudgery and abuse. Sentient fighter drones, born to kill, made to die.

“Today, we have acted against Sentionics. Tomorrow, we will act again, and we will continue to act until humane treatment of all synthetics is guaranteed.” He raised his voice, his eyes looking straight at the camera. “What is consciousness? We don’t know. What is sentience? Who can say? Synthetics are not humans, they are not animals. They are something new.

“But they are alive—and as long as they live, our struggle will never die.”

§

The bullet is a metallic streak. I remember running down the hall beneath the flashing lights and screaming klaxons, holding Kiro’s hand, the hack complete. We get away in his old motorcar, back to the safe house. Then Tui hugs me while Kiro shuts me down.

One more mission, he said, closing my eyes. One more hack to run. After the police turn you on.

I have prepared conversations for when we meet again, but that won’t happen now. As I look up into the boundless atmosphere, I remember the song as:

She never lived so she cannot die

the copper-jacketed slug shatters my core

Only fade away to the

and cuts the link to the

cold blue sky.

 

 

J.E. Bates is a lifelong communicant of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other mind sugar and screen candy. He’s lived in California, Finland, and many worlds in between. He can be found at twitter.com/jeebates or https://jebates.com.

 

 

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