This is the second in a two-part series. The first part can be read at Robotics, Part I .
“Our next step was to test the technology in humans,” Ulrick said. “As you saw, it had worked well in mice. We were delighted that they didn’t suffer any ill-effects.”
“None at all? How do you know?” It seemed amazing that the bots could attach themselves to the nerves and relay their signals without any issues.
“Well,” Ulrick swallowed. “I hope you aren’t squeamish.”
“We tested over two hundred mice. We sacrificed two a day. On average, the robots disintegrated and washed out of their systems at one month, with all of them gone by two months. The mice we didn’t kill lived out their normal lifespan.”
“So you thought it would be safe to try people.” Nancy shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“Yes. We got the go-ahead to infect three.”
“One of whom was my friend.” She folded her arms around herself, worrying about Kristi.
Julius gave her a dark look. She didn’t care. She wanted to absorb the import of what they’d done.
Ulrick took a chair across from her and studied her face. “Because of the top-secret nature of the project, we couldn’t advertise for volunteers. This isn’t a cure for lung cancer. We thought for a long time about how to recruit them. Julius and I were out, because we are too valuable.”
Julius brought up another diagram. “After much discussion, the NSA ordered us to find three ordinary people of a patriotic bent and ask them. The thing is, the government still requires us to obtain informed consent, which meant we’d have to tell them what we were doing, yet they wouldn’t have security clearances, so they couldn’t know about the program. This was a problem. The solution was a drug which wipes out short-term memory. We held a party, and asked our friends to bring their friends.”
Nancy leaned forward in her chair, sitting up as tall as she could, furious. “You used me.”
“I suppose you could say that.” He shrugged. “But Kristi was delighted to help her country in the war against terrorism. If you want, I can play the clip of her agreeing to the robots.”
“After you drugged her.”
“No, you’re wrong. It was before. I vetted her very carefully to ensure she was a good choice, then we went upstairs. I told her she’d have to take the memory drug after I put eye drops containing bots into her eyes and ear drops with bots in her ears. Every word we said, from the moment you introduced us, is recorded. You’re welcome to watch it later.”
“Good, I will.”
“She isn’t in any danger,” Ulrick said.
“Yeah, right. You put gadgets in her brain, and you expect me to believe they can’t cause problems?” She pushed her chair away from the table and glared at the two men.
Julius’ face softened. “I won’t lie to you. Sure, there’s a small risk.”
“Why didn’t you use soldiers? Why our friends?” Nancy had never been hysterical, but she felt like she might give it a try.
“The military wouldn’t let us use their men,” Ulrick said. “You know, Julius, bringing Nancy into this was a bad idea. I told you so.”
Julius nodded, and Ulrick took a hypodermic needle out of his pocket, along with a vial.
They were going to inject her with the drug and eliminate her short-term memory. She looked wildly back and forth between them. Her eyes grew big. Much as she hated the thought of Kristi carrying around these robots, she wanted to know more. “No, no, guys, don’t do this. I’m okay. Really.”
Ulrick set the needle on the table and looked at her face. She saw him tracing its outlines, studying her as if to determine if she could be trusted. She glanced up and realized that Julius was doing the same thing.
After what seemed like forever, Ulrick nodded. “If you show any more signs of cracking, we’ll make sure you don’t remember a thing. Continue, Julius.”
A video began. Although the visuals were fuzzy and jerky, Nancy thought she recognized a painting in Kristi’s bank, where she herself had an account, then a line of people standing in front of Kristi. The view changed to a computer screen and then to a person’s face and down to what might be their hands. She was looking through Kristi’s eyes. She heard Kristi’s voice, then a customer’s, but she couldn’t make out their words.
Julius paused the video. “This is where we need you. All the signals are poor quality. Can you clean them up?”
She hesitated, considering what the success of this project could mean for her country, and how little she could do to prevent harm from coming to Kristi, then nodded. “I think so. It’ll be harder, or course, when there’s more background noise and movement.”
Now that she’d decided to join them, a wave of excitement hit her. She’d been so frustrated with her current project. This would provide her with something new and challenging.
“Good. We’ll need software to recognize who and where, too.”
She grinned. That was right up her alley.
“Does this mean you’re in?” Julius asked, his eyes searching her face. “You can’t go all soft on us in the very unlikely event that something happens to your friend.”
Kristi would be fine. The robots would disintegrate in less than a month. In the meantime, maybe she’d get to know this intriguing man a little better. “Yes, I’m in.”
Over the next few days, she received an in-depth tour of the project and the information they’d been collecting. She also watched the four hour tape from Julius’ interaction with Kristi, which went exactly the way he’d said. Kristi had eagerly agreed to the robots and the memory drug.
Her mind eased, Nancy began researching the software she would need to both clean up signals and recognize faces, voices, and places. No one had ever had to do all this in a single, easily-used, piece of software, especially since the signals coming from the bots were different than those from cameras and other sensors.
At nine PM the following Friday, three weeks after Kristi had been impregnated with the robots, Nancy arrived at Kristi’s apartment, wearing her hottest outfit, a low cut red top with skinny jeans that fit her perfectly, wanting Julius to drool if he happened to be watching out of Kristi’s eyes this evening.
She was surprised to see that Kristi had on a long-sleeved T-shirt and shapeless khakis. “I’m not going.”
“I have a terrible headache. ”
“How come?” Was it from the devices in Kristi’s brain?
“Work was hectic and stressful today.”
Nancy hoped that was it. She swayed her hips a little. “You’ll feel better after we dance a bit. Take some aspirin and get ready.”
Kristi went into the bathroom. A minute later, Nancy heard a moan, then a thump. She bolted to the door. Her friend lay on the floor, her eyes open, but rolled up into her head.
By the time the ambulance arrived, Kristi was dead. The doctors said an aneurism had burst in her brain, but Nancy wondered.
She spent the next week helping Kristi’s parents make funeral arrangements, call relatives and friends, and clean out Kristi’s rental. She’d never realized there was so much to take care of when someone died. Saturday afternoon, while she was emptying the closet in Kristi’s bedroom, Julius walked into the room and cleared his throat.
“I am so sorry about your friend,” he said.
She shrugged. If she replied to him, she’d burst into tears. Instead, she pointed towards Kristi’s office. “Her mother is in there. Tell her.”
“I will. But first I want to talk to you. Somewhere private, away from work.”
“My place? I’m close by.”
“Too risky. Walls have ears.” Instead, they went to his beach house. This time, she climbed the silver staircase and stared at the view. He wrapped his arms around her. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said, “but I don’t believe it’s possible. The robots are too small. In any case, she must have already had the aneurism. You do know that, don’t you?”
She turned to him then, and he kissed her gently, then more passionately. Before she knew it, they were naked together on his bed.
“You’re so beautiful and so brilliant,” he said. “I’ve wanted you ever since I met you.”
She spent every night with him after that, mostly crying while he hugged her. Their love-making helped, but it could never truly ease the loss of her closest friend.
Going back to work the next week, she was still uneasy about the robotics project, but she was determined to believe Julius’ assurances that Kristi’s aneurism had nothing to do with it. However, two days later, one of the other infected people, Luke, had a small hemorrhagic stroke. He would recover, but it was too much of a coincidence for Nancy.
She stormed down the hall to Julius’ office. His door was closed. She knocked. There was no answer, so she grabbed the doorknob and twisted. To her surprise, it wasn’t locked. Julius was slumped over his desk. She shouted, “Julius, are you okay?” He didn’t move. She tapped his back. Still no reaction.
Just as she reached for his throat to feel his pulse, Ulrick burst through the door.
“Oh, God,” he said. “I worried Julius would go next. He insisted on putting the robots in his own eyes and ears. I tried to stop him, but he said he couldn’t do it to someone else if he wasn’t willing to do it to himself.”
“How did you get here so fast?”
“I heard his head drop onto the desk, then I heard your voice coming out my computer. He must still be alive. The robots tap into the cellular matrix for their energy.”
“Call 911. I’ll see if he has a pulse.” Panicked, it took her a minute to find the right spot. When her cold hand touched it, he groaned.
“He’s alive,” she said, half crying, half so angry about this stupid project she wanted to slap either Julius or Ulrick.
As she waited nervously in the emergency room, she wondered if there was any way to send Ulrick to jail for Kristi’s murder. Probably not, since the top-secret nature of the project meant no one besides a select few would ever know why she had died.
After a long wait, the nurse called her over. “He’s hemorrhaging somewhere around his auditory nerve. We’re wheeling him into surgery now. You might as well leave.”
She called Ulrick from her car. He must have heard the panic in her voice, because he said, “he’ll be okay, Nancy. And, just so you know, we’re backing off this project. Go home. Take care of yourself.”
By evening, they learned that Julius would probably survive, but he might never fully recover.
That was it. She was done, not just with this project, but with the entire research center where she worked, and even the entire country. She sent her resumé to a company in France which used pattern recognition for environmental purposes. They flew her over for an interview, and offered her a job on the spot. Her French wasn’t good, but she could learn.
The last time she climbed the silver staircase, Julius was lying on his side, staring at the ocean, while his full-time nurse busied herself on the far side of the room, pretending to give them some privacy. He was better, though he continued to have trouble with short-term memory and motor control. Nancy sat on the edge of his bed and picked up his hand. “I’m leaving tomorrow, sweetheart.”
He didn’t respond, but tears rolled down his cheek, so she knew he’d heard her. That was an improvement; he’d been deaf for the past month. She kissed his cheek and stood, but he grasped her hand hard and spoke, his voice hoarse. “I’m so sorry about Kristi and about us. I wanted us to work out.”
Her breath quickened. She tightened her hand on his, then pulled away. “You know where to find me.” Then she left, quickly descending the spiral.