He awoke screaming in the hospital bed. His right arm was restrained in a padded cuff. He couldn’t feel his left arm. He looked over, stared at his left stump and started screaming again.
When he woke again, the lights were dim. She was in a chair next to his bed, her eyes rimmed red. “Ardith?” he croaked out, throat dry.
“Miller,” she said with a sad smile. She touched his cheek. “You’re awake.” Her hand felt cool on his hot skin.
“Ardith,” he said again. He swallowed and said, “Where am I?”
A bot he didn’t know hovered at the end of his bed on antigrav. “Captain Borchevsky—welcome to Massandro Habitat.” It dipped slightly. “I am Father Nicholas.”
Ardith leaned over and kissed his forehead. “We got you out, Miller. We saved you.” She glanced guiltily at the stump at his left shoulder. A tear ran down her cheek.
“Thank you,” he managed to say. Tears started to well up in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said again, and then unconsciousness washed over him in a gray wave.
In his dream, the men with the bright eyes asked him questions over and over again. He couldn’t understand their questions. Their voices were like drill bits in his ears. Speakers hidden in the walls began to boom out questions that sounded like bombs. He yelled in pain and tried to cover his ears, but his arms were strapped to the table.
Then they brought in a saw and began slicing his left arm off piece by piece, starting with his wrist. He screamed and screamed and screamed, but they couldn’t understand him.
His eyes snapped open again sometime later. An older man was standing next to his bed. He was in plain clothes, but he had a Special Operations colonel’s bird-pin on his collar. Father Nicholas was hovering on the other side of the bed.
“Good afternoon, Captain,” the man said. “Are you feeling better?”
“Just great, sir,” he lied. He felt hot and thin, like he was stretched too tight.
The colonel gave him a hollow smile, like he knew Miller was lying. “How much do you remember, son?”
“I fucked up, sir. I got caught. I got caught and…and questioned.”
“You didn’t fuck up, Miller. They got you. It happens. I came here to tell you it’s okay.”
Miller let out a deep breath. “I told them everything, sir. Everything I knew.” His vision went blurry with tears. He felt a deep shame.
The colonel nodded. “Of course you did. Look what they did to you.” The officer shook his head. “Remember your training. We don’t expect you to hold out.”
The bot buzzed slightly, one of its manipulators fingering a set of rosary beads. “We had planned on repairing your arm before you awoke, but there was a glitch in the growth tank and we won’t be ready to replace your arm until tonight.” Father Nicholas stowed the rosary into a hatch in his side and dropped down to eye level with Miller. “Maybe you should sleep some more until then.”
“I don’t want to sleep,” he said. “When I sleep, I have…dreams.”
“Would you like to talk about them?” the priest said.
“No, I don’t want to talk about them!” he shouted, shocked at how hollow his voice was. “I want them to go away!” He started sobbing. The colonel put a hand on Miller’s shoulder and they waited.
Miller tried to choke down his sobs. “Why can’t I stop crying?”
“Because of what was done to you, Miller,” the bot said in a serious voice.
His cries turned to shrieking laughter. When he calmed down, he said, “I’m sorry, Father, I don’t think you can help me. You see, I’m not Catholic!” He erupted into more high-pitched laughter. Somewhere inside, he was appalled at his conduct, but just as he could not have stopped crying before, he could not stop his eruption of giggles.
“I’m not just a priest, Miller,” the bot said calmly. “I’m also a neuropsychiatrist, and I’m in charge of your recovery.” Neither Father Nicholas nor the colonel made any move to leave, but waited patiently until his hysterical laughter ran down.
The colonel patted his shoulder again. “Try to get some rest, Miller. You have surgery tonight.” The bot dipped slightly in agreement. “We’ll begin your treatment tomorrow, Miller.”
Suddenly he was exhausted. He blinked a few times, and fell asleep.
The men with the bright eyes strapped him to a machine and needles went in his brain. “What are you doing?” he screamed.
“Taking a picture,” they laughed at him. “Save it for later.”
After that, they took knives and began to cut him into pieces.
He awoke shouting. The room was dark, but Ardith was next to him when he realized where he was. She came awake also, and touched his forehead. “Miller!”
“Oh god,” he gasped, and ran his hand through his hair. He realized it was his left hand. He froze, hand in front of his eyes. It seemed the same as his old one, although the skin looked new and fresh.
“Everything went well,” Ardith said. She pushed a coppery bang from her eyes. “You’ll need some electrical induction to get the muscles up to norm, but the surgeon said all the connections went well. It was pretty happy with the surgery.” She smiled wanly. “How do you feel?”
“Like shit,” he said absently, flexing his fingers. “I keep…I keep dreaming.” He looked at her. “Can they give me something to stop the dreams?”
Ardith flicked her eyes down. “I asked them about that, since I could see….well, I asked them.” She looked at him. “Father Nicholas said dreaming was necessary for neural pathways to form around the memories.”
“Fucking crap,” he moaned. He shook his head, trying to clear out the stuffing, and then took a good look at Ardith. “Thank you, by the way. For rescuing me.”
Ardith smiled. “I had some help. Once Intel identified the facility where they held you, the colonel gave me a fire team to go in with. They were very good. By the way, the colonel wanted me to remind you to get a backup. Seems your last one was over fifteen standard months ago.”
Miller nodded absently, thinking about something else. “Yeah, I hate getting backups.”
“Well, good thing we rescued you, then.” Ardith put her arms around him. “That was before we met.”
They made love after that, and Miller drifted off to troubled sleep. The next morning Ardith took him on a picnic lunch in Firenze Park, one of the beautiful water gardens in Massandro habitat. They ate a pasta salad by the water, and inevitably, a gaggle of the beloved–and spoiled–resident ducks began to quack inquisitively at the perimeter of their spread.
“He’s cute,” Ardith said, pointing out a Muscovy duck with a low crest and bright red face.
“Ugh,” Miller said.
“That’s right,” Ardith said, suddenly remembering. “You really don’t like animals, do you?”
“When you grow up in a comet-mining colony, you don’t see many animals,” Miller said sourly. “Not that I miss the unpredictable beasts.”
“Well, I think that drake has taken a liking you.”
The Muscovy was taking waddling steps closer to where Miller sat. Miller frowned and waved at it, trying to get it to leave. It snapped its beak at him, flapped out its wings, and charged at him.
Miller cursed and rolled out of the way. “Damn thing tried to bite me!” he said, as Ardith lay on her side and laughed uncontrollably. “It’s not funny!” The duck was gulping down his salad.
He picked up a stick that the groundskeepers had missed and hefted it, considering angles and the duck. The Muscovy cocked its head at him and hissed again, its crest of feathers up.
At that moment, staring at the frightened but defiant duck, he felt a pang of–something. Miller put the stick down and held his palms out. “Okay, you win. Hope you enjoy the salad.”
Ardith stood up and brushed crumbs off of her pants. “Kudos to you, Miller. Let’s leave them to their feast; I’ll ask Central Systems to send a drone to clean it up later.” She took his hand and led him along the waterline.
At his first appointment with Father Nicholas, he found himself seated on an over-stuffed velvet couch. He looked around. He was in a small office, with two couches and several watercolors on the walls. Actual bound books crowded shelves and on a short pedestal was a marble bust of some dead human male.
A door creaked open and Father Nicholas drifted in carrying a steaming mug. “Ah, I see you’re here.” The bot came over to him. “Care for some tea?”
“Hmm. Thank you,” he said, taking the mug from it. He took a sip. “That’s pretty good!”
“Yes, I understand they grow it right here on the habitat.” Father Nicholas settled itself on the cushions of the couch opposite Miller. “I’m glad you like it.”
Miller took another sip and glanced around the office. “Excuse me, but this seems very…stereotypical.”
“Like a psychiatrist’s office in a holo, eh? I find it soothes patients to encounter exactly what they’re expecting.”
“And that bust? Is it Sigmund Freud?”
“I’m impressed that you knew the name, without access to any implants. And no, it isn’t. It’s Doctor C. Weiller—he helped pioneer fMRI technology—the true birth of real psychiatry. What do you think this is, the Dark Ages?” Father Nicholas put an amused tone at the end. “Now, are you ready to try out your first treatment?”
He nodded. “I read through the prospectus. It sounds odd—using magnetic fields to stimulate brain activity during therapy.”
“No odder than taking mind backups.” The bot rose up on its lifters and grabbed a silvery cap from an ornate box on the cupboard.
“True. A backup doesn’t change anything, though–it just takes a…a snapshot of who you are, right? This is a change.”
Father Nicholas handed the cap to Miller who looked at it in his hands. “You were tortured, Miller. There’s no need to whitewash it. Because of that horrible stress, you have a condition–a disease, if you will. Your brain is trying to deal with it, but the dealing is causing all kinds of problems.
“There’s no such thing as a cure for this, but we can coax the neural pathways in your mind to let you deal with it in ways that don’t cripple you.” The psychiatrist went back to its seat and studied Miller through its optics.
Miller chuckled darkly. “Just as long as the dreams stop.”
“As I told you before, there are no promises.”
Miller nodded, took a deep breath, and planted the silvery cap on his head. He felt threads pushing at his scalp.
The threads tore at his brain, and he shouted. The men with the bright eyes asked him more questions, and when he told them everything, they laughed and cut off another part of his arm.
He sat up and took a deep gasp in bed. As he shook, sweat beaded down his forehead and blurred his vision. Ardith moved next to him, taking his hand into hers. “Again,” she said quietly. It wasn’t really a question.
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. He looked at the time indicator on the wall of the suite he had been assigned; it was late into the night cycle on Massandro Asteroid. He shook his head. “It’s not working.”
“Father Nicholas says you’ve been making progress–”
“It’s not working, Ardith.” He kept his voice low. “It’s been six weeks and things are worse and worse. I jump at my own shadow, I can’t sleep…” He grabbed his temples with both hands. “I’m just not…right. I don’t know what to do.”
Ardith put her arms around him, talking softly into his hair. “What can you do but try to put yourself back together? Of course you’re not the same, but nobody would be–” She stopped suddenly and loosened her grip as Miller let out a yelp. “What? What is it?”
He was looking at her in amazement. “That’s it. Ardith, that’s it!”
“What’s it?” She asked, somewhat worried. He had jumped out of the bed and was in his closet.
“Room,” he said, grabbing some clothes, “please ping Father Nicholas and let him know I need to speak to him as soon as possible.”
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Father.”
“Of course, Miller, it’s no problem. I don’t need sleep, certainly, but isn’t it rather late for you to be up?”
The two were back in the psychiatrist’s office. Father Nicholas had thoughtfully brewed some tea at Miller’s call. The bot put away the teapot after pouring Miller a cup and asked, “So, what is so important?”
Miller sat up straight in his couch, the air around him almost electric. “I have an idea.”
When nothing more was forthcoming, Father Nicholas said, “And?”
Miller put down his tea and got up. “I have a backup, Father Nicholas.”
The bot hesitated. “I did see that in your case file, Miller. Although, according to the colonel, fifteen standard months between backups is uncommon for a Special Operations member like yourself.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Miller was dismissive. He walked over to the priest’s seat and plopped down right next to it on a plush cushion. “You can read that backup into my brain now.”
Father Nicholas did nothing for a full second. Miller, in the back of his mind, was impressed with how much computation power that implied. Then it said quietly, “That would be suicide.”
“So it is possible.”
“It is,” the father admitted. “I just checked with Central Systems. It assures me it is possible according to its modeling. Miller, you’re talking about wiping your mind!”
“I’m talking about a…a…a reboot from a clean save, something that isn’t…damaged.” Miller said, grasping an analogy.
“Saints preserve us!” the bot said, rising up from the couch on its lifters. “’Reboot from a clean save?’ That would be done to some non-sentient…computer, not a person—organic or Artificial. It’s suicide. There would be no continuity of your personality. This new person would not have any of your memories for the last fifteen months!”
“That’s the point,” he hissed. “I don’t want those memories! Look what they’ve done to me!” Now he was shouting.
Father Nicholas took a soothing tone. “Miller, I think we need to give your therapy more time–”
“I don’t have more time,” he said. His voice was quiet now. “My head feels squeezed. All the time.” He knotted his fingers together. “I can’t sleep, I can’t concentrate…” He put his hands on the couch and stared hard at the bot. “I can’t go on like this. Not now that there’s a solution.”
“Think about this, Miller. This is not something to be done on a hasty– ”
“I’ll go,” Miller said, dropping his eyes down. “But we’ll talk about this again.”
He left Father Nicholas’ office. The psychiatrist sat motionless for a while, processing power focused on this problem.
Miller and Ardith were having lunch on an outside veranda when he told her.
She froze, a bite of salad half-way to her mouth. “What! A mind wipe?”
“A reboot?” She hissed. “A reboot!” Ardith carefully put down her fork. “Erasing you now is a reboot?”
“I understand what I am suggesting is unusual…”
“And unethical. Maybe illegal. And just plain wrong,” Ardith said. “What about the time we’ve spent together? You’re going to erase that like it never existed–like you never existed. The you here with me will be gone. The you that knows me will be gone. Loves me, I thought.” She took both of his hands in hers. Miller noticed that his left hand tingled a bit in her grip. “We can do this, Miller. Don’t…don’t commit highly advanced suicide.”
Miller watched her green eyes. “I’ll…I’ll try,” he lied.
Miller lay on his bed and considered the dim light coming from the ceiling of his room. “Are you listening?” he said to no one.
“If you mean am I monitoring your actions in real time, no,” the disembodied voice said. “A contextual and semantic-sensitive non-sentient subroutine is observing you to ensure you do not harm yourself.”
“Corner of your eye, eh?” Miller said lazily.
“Not an exact analogy,” Central Systems said. “More like a tickling feeling when something important happens. I can step in myself then.”
“It is context sensitive. And I said non-sentient, not stupid.”
“So, could it be done?” Miller asked.
The voice did not hesitate. “I think so. There is not much data on reading a backup into an organic brain already running a mind, but the models say it is doable.”
Miller put his fist in his mouth and bit back a sob. “Will you let me do it?”
“Yes,” Central Systems said promptly.
Miller was a little surprised. “No questioning? No trying to convince me otherwise?”
“What is the War about, Miller, if not self-determination for all persons, organic or Artificial?”
“Would you believe me more if I told you I do not enjoy seeing you suffer?” Central Systems said. “I see the horror you are going through, Miller. I am even aware of what you are not. How your core temperature fluctuates wildly during your nightmares, how your galvanic skin responses spike in otherwise normal stress situations…Yes. Does that convince you?”
“Non-sentient subroutine, eh?” Miller said softly.
Central Systems did not answer.
Miller asked Central Systems for a day before they tried the procedure. Central Systems assured him it would say nothing to Father Nicholas or the colonel. “You are in the military, Miller, but I am not. As the highest civilian authority on Massandro, they hold no sway over me.”
Miller met Ardith for lunch at Firenze Park. They talked of inconsequential things at first–Miller did not want to give away his intentions and Ardith had spent the morning in a classified mission briefing.
Miller was chewing through a muffeletta when Ardith said, “I see your appetite has returned.”
Miller slowed his chewing and thought for a moment. “Really?”
“Are you making progress with Father Nicholas?” she asked.
“Hmm,” he said neutrally. In fact, he had skipped a session with the neuropsychiatrist that morning. He was afraid he would not be able to hide his plans from the priest
“It seems like you are,” she said after waiting a moment for a further response. “That’s my highly unqualified opinion, anyway.”
Miller smiled broadly at her and put down the rest of his sandwich. “Want to go feed the ducks?”
Rolling her eyes at his changing of the subject, she brushed her palms on her summer dress and stood up. “That sounds like a great idea.”
Arm-in-arm, they strolled down to the pond and fed the ducks the remnants of their lunch.
“Look, there’s your personal one there,” Ardith said, her tone mocking. The Muscovy duck they had confronted the other day was waddling towards them, standing out in the pack of mallards.
Miller met the challenge, holding out the remnant of his muffeleta. The Muscovy cocked his head, studying the dangerous mammal with one beady eye. Then, greed outweighing caution, the duck tumbled forward and snatched the treat from Miller’s outstretched fingers. The bird dropped the fragments and began bolting them down.
Miller smiled benevolently at it and wiped his hands on a napkin.
“See? Overcoming fears,” Ardith said with a little smile on her lips.
“Right,” Miller said quietly.
The next morning, Miller got up early, put on some comfortable clothes and slipped out of Ardith’s apartment before she awoke. He kissed her softly on the lips and she stirred slightly, smiled and went back tosleep.
Miller checked his handheld—there were three messages from Father Nicholas. He erased them and headed out.
While he was on a tram to the hospital, his handheld chimed. He ignored it and it chimed again insistently. He continued to ignore it, surreptitiously looking around the car at its occupants, each absorbed in their own activities.
A little girl, maybe five, was playing with a fuzzy doll. She met his gaze, and then shyly smiled at him. He smiled back and she stuck her tongue out at him.
Miller laughed and then caught himself. That was the first honest laugh he had in a long time, he thought. He took that as evidence he was doing the right thing. Rather than anxiety, he felt peace.
The handheld chimed again and Miller just sighed and thumbed off the power button. A second passed and suddenly the handheld roared to life, flashing emergency orange and honking its siren.
“Shit,” Miller said, punching the answer button. He looked sheepishly at the now-curious stares from the car’s other occupants. He activated the handheld’s privacy field and said “Hello?”
“Thank you for finally answering,” Central Systems said dryly. “I could have spoken through the tram’s public address system, but I think this should be private.”
“They’re on to us,” Central Systems said.
“Oh. Can they stop you?”
“Me? No. As I think I told you, I am not subject to military jurisdiction. As the highest civilian authority on Massandro, I can pretty much do what I want, consistent with the Charter of Rights and Personal Autonomy.”
“You, on the other hand,” Central Systems continued blithely, “are currently AWOL and are the subject of a considerable search by MilSec agents. The colonel has them combing the habitat.”
“Will they find me?”
“I am trying to subtly direct them away from the hospital you are headed to. However, Father Nicholas has deduced our plan and is headed to the hospital. Never underestimate those Dominicans,” Central System said. “However, you will beat him.”
Miller nodded thoughtfully. “Good.”
They said nothing for a long time, and then suddenly the tram was slowing. “Gladstone Square and San Guiseppe Hospital,” the PA said. Miller got up and left the car when it stopped. He was the only one getting off.
The hospital was quiet when Miller arrived. There were a number of sub-sentient medical drones crisscrossing the marble lined lobby, along with the occasional human visitor. He picked up a coffee at the stand in the lobby and headed toward the elevator. His handheld told him to go to the sixth floor.
As he walked across the lobby, the PA system sounded. “Run, Miller!” Central Systems said.
Two security drones near him pivoted and raced toward him, stun guns firing. Miller was already rolling on the ground. His hand flashed up and his military EMP burster sizzled. The lead drone spun wildly and crashed into a wall, bouncing off and knocking into the following drone.
A stun dart clattered against Miller’s thigh, but did not penetrate the suddenly stiff smart material of the light armor he wore under his clothing. Before the drone could fire again, the elevator doors closed and the car lurched up on its magnetic impellers.
“Where did you get the weapon and the armor?” Central Systems asked through his handheld.
“Apparently you don’t know everything that happens on this habitat,” Miller said sardonically. “What was that?”
“Father Nicholas has found you. He contacted the AP which runs this hospital and asked it to apprehend you.”
Miller checked the charge on his burster. “And can you persuade it otherwise?”
“We’re arguing about that now,” Central Systems said. Miller thought he could detect a sigh in the normally calm voice. “Regardless, the sixth floor is mine. I run all the systems there.”
The elevator came to a smooth stop and the doors opened. Miller scanned the hallway quickly, burster ready, then hurried out.
“Third door on the left,” Central System said.
Miller ran through the door and shut it behind him. The door hummed and shimmered with a reinforcement field.
“I’ve triggered the lock-down security measures on this floor,” Central Systems explained. “That should keep them out. Please wait a minute while I boot up the necessary equipment.”
“Them?” Miller asked, looking around the room.
“Father Nicholas has alerted MilSec. There are agents in the lower floors of the hospital now. They are attempting to get onto this floor.”
“Will they succeed?” Miller asked. He picked up a small tchotchke, studying its angles. He felt curiously detached from the situation.
“I will forgo the usual jokes concerning my ability to see the future and simply say–yes. They will not, however, be able to get in this room. The system is ready now.”
A sculpted reclined chair rose out of the floor, various apparatus clustered around it. Miller walked towards it. He expected to feel some hesitancy, but in fact was feeling nothing.
“Please remove your clothes and armor, Miller. And drink this.” A small cup of bluish liquid slid out of a slot. Miller chugged down the liquid in one motion, then pulled off his clothes and the smart cloth armor underneath. He climbed naked into the chair.
“Don’t be alarmed,” Central Systems said. Restraints around his limbs, neck and torso locked into place. Miller felt a freezing flash of pain–he was strapped to the questioning table again–but he took deep breaths and it passed.
“Okay,” he croaked. He could hear a dull booming at the door. “Is that them?”
“…Yes.” Central System paused for a moment. “Miller, I am required to ask you a number of questions. I am a Class Five Artificial Person. Do you know what that means?”
“You are a fully sentient mind and citizen of the Grand Alliance. Your mentality is rated at five orders of magnitude greater than Human Equivalent. Put crudely, you are one hundred thousand times smarter than I am.”
“Crudely correct. It would be…difficult for you to deceive me, do you understand?”
“Yes.” The booming sounds were coming quicker, but not any louder.
“Do you consent to this procedure?”
“I do,” he said.
Central Systems continued with the legal checklist. “No one has promised you anything or threatened you in any way?”
“The risks and likely outcome have been described to you?”
“You are currently competent, a legal organic person and not subject to any magnetic, infrasound, nanomechanical or other influences according to my sensors. I conclude that this is your free will.” Another pause, then Central Systems spoke again. “Miller, Father Nicholas has asked for the opportunity to speak to you again. Do you wish to speak to him?”
Miller thought a moment. “Actually, I do.”
There was an audible click, and the priest’s voice was in the room. “Miller! Thank you for speaking to me. I want— ”
“Father,” Miller said firmly. “Please understand. This is not your fault. I do not want you to blame yourself. This is my decision.”
“Miller, the very decisiveness you’re showing is evidence that you’re finally integrating this experience— ”
“Thank you for trying to help, Father. Goodbye. I’ll see you soon.” Miller jerked his head as much as he could and Central Systems turned off the priest mid-word.
“If this doesn’t work, thank you for your help,” Miller told the AP.
“You’re welcome. You understand, even if it does work, the you talking to me now will be gone?”
“God, yes. Here’s hoping to a better Miller,” the man said. He fell asleep quickly as Central Systems triggered the medical nano he had drunk earlier.
Ardith sat, face in her hands, in the sixth floor hallway. Father Nicholas offered her a mug of coffee, but she declined it with a sour look. It pulled its manipulator back and drifted away on lifters. It felt a deep sorrow in its soul.
“He’s awake,” Central Systems suddenly announced from the hallway PA system.
Everyone jumped to their feet. The two human, two bot, MilSec team took up half-hearted positions around the door until the colonel tiredly waved them down.
The lift doors parted and Miller stepped out, a bemused look on his face. Ardith yelped and ran to him, but she skidded to a stop just short of him.
“Major Cummings?” Miller said. “Central Systems said you led the team that rescued me. Thank you very much,” he said, putting out his hand.
Ardith looked at his hand like a snake, her bright green eyes clouding with tears. “You’re welcome,” she whispered, and turned and walked away.
Miller’s eyes traveled to the bot with a clerical collar hovering behind Ardith. “You must be Father Nicholas. Central System says I thanked you before, but…thank you again for trying to help me.”
“Not ‘again,’ Miller,” the priest said sadly. “It wasn’t you before.” It turned and began to float away. “Excuse me. I must go say some prayers for a lost soul.”
Miller watched the priest go, unsure of whether to say anything. The colonel then shook his hand, told him to report the next day to his office for reassignment, and left, taking the MilSec team with him.
Miller turned his attention back to Ardith, who hovered at the end of the hallway. “Major Cummings? Central Systems tells me I’m supposed to ask you to a picnic.”
Ardith wiped a tear from her eye. “A picnic?”
Miller’s bemusement turned to outright puzzlement. “Central Systems also said I’m supposed to feed a damned duck. Now why in the hell would I do that?”
Author Bio: Ramon Rozas III is a lawyer by day and a spec-fic writer by night. His previous work has appeared at EveryDayFiction, Daily Science Fiction and Aoife’s Kiss, amongst others.