Terminated (short story)-(sci-fi)



My hand reaches towards the air. I examine it with a morbid curiosity, the skin smooth and uninterrupted, and the fingers tapered to a chillingly perfect edge. Merely seconds ago my body felt like a beautiful machine, a work of art shaped to functional perfection. Like it has my entire life. Now it feels like lead. It feels like dull, lifeless metal.
I take a deep, shuddering breath, yet no air enters my lungs. I feel no panic now. Instead, dull despair fills my veins where I once thought blood ran hot and thick and alive. I let my hand drop, and despair is replaced by an eerie calmness. The light fades from the world around me, sounds fade out into nothingness.
“29485-B. Terminated.”
My head lolls to the side, then stills.

I walk into the downtime room, taking a seat neatly beside the one of my best friend’s. Her name is Sarah. The noisy and familiar buzz of the room fills my ears and I take a deep breath. Sarah nods politely to me.
“So Lily, what do you have next?” Jonas, across from me, asks. It is routine now. It is a catalyst to most of our social situations. Jane and Kate, also our regulars, sit next to Jonas and listen attentively, resting their chins on their hands.
“Linguistics,” I answer automatically.
Jonas nods with a small smile on his face, the same familiar, all knowing look in his eyes. “Understandable, of course,” he replies, hands held clasped on the table. “As it is your specialty. I cannot imagine you in Physical.”
I laugh and our table laughs, Sarah’s eyes crinkling and Kate ducking her head slightly.
“We all know that is my specialty, Jonas,” Kate stares at her arms, well built and chiseled. “And I will never dream of a specialty in Linguistics. It is incomprehensible.”
Jane interrupts Kate by tapping the table three times, clearing her throat.
“Did you hear who dropped yesterday?”
Jonas shifts uncomfortably, while Sarah and Kate look down quickly. I stare intensely at the table, saying nothing.
Jane does not wait, only taps the table again impatiently and speaks. “David. He didn’t show up for his specialty today, with me.” She frowns, squeezing her chin. “It’s odd. Can you imagine if it happened to any of us?”
Despite the table’s atmosphere, Jonas’ eyes flicker towards Jane. Sarah and Kate glance at each other. My breath is uneven for a moment, then returns to normal.
“You speak such nonsense,” Jonas says coolly.
“It isn’t nonsense,” Jane shoots back, staring at Jonas steadily until Jonas shakes his head slowly and looks away. Jane’s gaze travels around the table. “It can happen to us, at any time.”
I stiffen and place my hands on my lap, watching the both of them.
“No wonder you do so poorly in your specialty. How many errors have you made in Mathematics since you started here? Was it five?” Jonas shakes his head. “Despicable. If anyone here were to drop, it would be you, Jane. We all know those who make errors are more likely to.”
Jane’s eyes widen, and she stands up. I watch her walk away and violently slam her hand against the wall before walking out.
I sigh and look towards Jonas. “Her emotions are getting out of control lately. I hate to admit it, but you’re right. Jane’s more likely to drop than any of us.”
Jonas stares at me strangely, eyes glittering. “Of course I am right. Analytics, and making errors? Unimaginable. I am not Jane, I can do what I am meant to do.”
They continue discussing mediocre subjects, while I can’t help but let out a string of sentences out in a quiet whisper, unheard by anyone but me, under my breath. Ten different languages, sixty seconds. Relief floods me as I recite them perfectly. I can also do what I am meant to do. Yet the feeling of being watched and judged remains, and I look around cautiously before rejoining the conversation.
I sit in the Linguistics room with twenty others. We all face the screens in front of us. Various complex sentences in various languages float up on the screen, along with a simple instruction below the sentence in red text. The instruction is the name of a different language. We all translate with ease, sitting upright with our hands in our laps, expressions calm.
The next exercise is more difficult. A voice speaks out from the speakers, fluent languages from all over the world. I stare at the red text on the screen. French. German. Chinese. Russian. English. Latin. Sentences spill out from my mouth. Seconds, minutes, hours pass.
I utter out a word, and suddenly the screen before me begins flashing. I look around, fingers fidgeting slightly on my lap. The red text on the screen is replaced by giant, floating letters in even more violent red: ERROR.
My breath hitches. Nobody around me pays the least attention to me, their attention strained on the task before them.
I sit still, chills running up my spine as the camera on the top of the screen flickers on and a light moves down my face, scanning it. Data appears, foreign, on the screen. Seconds later the screen flickers back to normal. Heart pounding, I continue with the tasks, digging my fingernails into my palm.
How could I have made an error?
“I can’t believe it.” Sarah and I are walking towards our dormitories. Sarah listens to me attentively, expression neutral yet at the same time sympathetic. I keep speaking, hands flying as I try to make sense of what happened. “Six years without a single error, why does it happen now? I am perfect, aren’t I? I’m not Jane.”
Sarah stares at the polished white ground, saying nothing for a moment.
“I’m sure it won’t happen again,” she offers a few moments later. “Just be more careful next time.”
“It’s not about being careful, you know that,” I reply. The weight on my chest feels like it’s hindering my ability to breathe. I close my eyes for a second before opening them again, walking in step with Sarah. “It’s more instinctive.”  
Sarah shrugs. “Maybe you should stop thinking about it. Go back to your dormitory, read your manual. At least that is productive.”
“I suppose,” I agree reluctantly. I wave goodbye to her as she nears her door, the polished, opaque glass sliding open as she places her palm on the scanner next to it. I rub my eyes, willing my breathing to steady as I take quick, methodical steps forward. Jane’s voice rings in my ears. It can happen to any of us, any time. Her voice is replaced by Jonas’. We all know those who make errors are more likely to. I shudder and scan my hand on my dormitory door. It slides open and I face my room. There is a single perfectly made bed, and a manual lying on the pillow. Simple, clean. I perch on my bed and open the manual to page one.
I meet with the regulars the next morning in the waiting room, ready for tests as we are every morning. Jane is slouched against the wall, facing away from us, and Jonas glares steadily at her. I sigh and turn to Sarah, who is explaining intricately to Kate how human surgery works. Kate’s brows are furrowed, and she shakes her head every few seconds, looking lost.
I move to Jane. She is still our regular, after all.
Jane turns and nods to me. “I see you still want to speak with me.”
I incline my head slightly. “Of course.” My gaze flickers nervously around, but it is impossible to speak without being heard. I lower my voice slightly. “I would like to know a bit more about dropping.”
Jane raises an eyebrow and shakes her head. “I have said too much already. It is scary, how sometimes I can do that. Say things I’m not supposed to. I can’t help it when I do, but it feels so wrong afterwards. Feelings wrong and out of place, like making an error.”
“It isn’t an error if I invite you to speak about it,” I explain. By now our regulars have stopped talking and are staring at the two of us.
“Don’t encourage her,” Sarah urges me not unkindly.
I ignore Sarah this time and gesture desperately with my hands. “Please, Jane.”
Jane closes her eyes and turns away from me, and our regulars lose interest, even Jonas. They continue their conversation. Yet as we file into the test hall, Jane whispers for me to meet outside the dorm corridor after the day.
The tests are simple, much like what I do in linguistics anyways. We sit in rows and rows, performing simple unique tasks, all of which we have done so many times before.
I try to be more careful this time, and relief floods me as I finish without making any other error. I join the regulars as we file out of the room, chattering as we move to our next activity.
I stand next to the entrance of the dorm corridor and meet Jane as the day ends. She lowers her head and beckons towards me, and we walk to the side, lowering our voices. Others stream pass us towards the dormitories in orderly lines, and Jane closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything,” I whisper hurriedly. “It just, don’t you always feel a little bit uneasy? That whole dropping business, it’s terrifying.”
“We’re not supposed to feel uneasy, or worried. Terrified is even less appropriate,” Jane explains quickly, stiffening. “I don’t know that much about dropping. I’ve just seen it happen many times. They could just be walking to rec, or in the dormitory hallways, right behind us. And the light just fades from their ways, without any warning. They drop to the ground, and, and they just stop moving. Permanently.” Jane’s breathing rate quickens until she’s almost gasping for breath, her eyes wide.
“I know what it looks like,” I say impatiently. “But why does it happen?”
Jane shakes her head rapidly. “I don’t know. All I realize is that there’s a pattern. Most of those who drop don’t have such a great track record, and I just-I think I’m next. Any time now, and I’ll be gone.”
“No,” I say immediately. “No, Jane. Don’t say that.”
“Anyways,” she brushes it aside and looks at the ground. “Sometimes I linger. After the bodies fall a while later bots come to pick them up. Just haul the body and roll off past the restricted doors and they’re gone. Nobody’s really supposed to talk about it. But the bodies are important somehow, I know that. Nobody really knows what happens after that.”
I fiddle with my jacket and we stand in silence for several moments. The hall around us rapidly empties as everyone heads to their dormitories. Jane shifts uncomfortably, then meets my gaze with steely eyes.
“Have you ever thought about something?” she asks, voice trembling slightly.
I wait for her to continue.
“We’ve been here for so long a time. I can’t even begin to come up with an accurate calculation of how long. And look through your memories, Lily, can you recall anything but this place?”
I shrug. “Why is that strange?” I question.
“I think there’s something really wrong,” Jane concludes, running her hand down her face. “I got to go.”
I watch her run down the hallway without looking back, my heart sinking.
I stare down at my own hands, and I wonder how many errors away from dropping I am.
That night I lie silently on the smooth bed in my dormitory. My hands are clasped across my stomach as I stare motionlessly at the white, unbroken ceiling. Jane’s words resonate in my mind and while I try to push them away, I spend most of the night not resting but thinking.
The next day I sit back in the rec room with the regulars. Everybody is chatting merrily, even Jonas participates with a less icy demeanor than usual. I clasp my hands together and place my elbows on the table. Sarah is speaking once again with her slow, professional tone, gesturing steadily with her hands as she explains foreign procedures to us. My mind begins to wander, which is unusual. I attempt to pull it back, only to sweep my gaze across the room, over the regulars’ heads. I wonder how many of us will drop soon.
I rub my hands together as Sarah finishes and looks at me expectantly.
The pit at my stomach and the slight twitching of my fingers are both unusual sensations. I pay acute attention to them as I give a brief rundown of the day. It occurs to me for the first time that there isn’t any point. We do the same routine daily anyhow. It is predictable, a cycle that keeps going but isn’t really going anywhere. They nod, eyes focusing on me as I speak. Everything is a monotone, and when the bell rings I find myself caught despondently in the crowd, the regulars out of sight as my vision goes slightly out of focus. I shake my head and it’s gone, and I continue down the hallway towards Linguistics.
It is a wonder that I am there when it happens. Thankfully no more errors occurred from me in Linguistics, but there is little time for relief.
I am walking down the corridors towards the testing hall again, and that is when I see it happen. The regulars aren’t with me, but I spot Jane ahead.
“Jane,” I call out and she turns around, a wary smile on her face. She steps aside and waits for me to come up to her in the crowd. “I’ve been thinking,” I begin. “You are right. About the memories, about not being able to remember anything but here, and how strange everything is, including the dropping. I mean, if we are here we must’ve come in here, right? But I’ve been thinking and I can’t remember how I came to be here.”
She opens her mouth to speak, perhaps to validate my words, perhaps to add her own thought, but before she can do so her head jerks backwards. Her body stills in mid air for a moment, then stiffens. Jane crumples to the ground before my feet, and in an instant the watery, lively glint in her eyes vanishes into nothing, and her limbs fall limp beside her.
“Jane?” My voice falls, as if somehow I don’t want anybody to hear. It doesn’t matter. Nobody pays attention, and the stream of people dodge around us, heading apathetically towards the testing hall. I drop to my knees, eyes widening. “Wake up, Jane.” I urge repeatedly, my palms pressed firmly against the cold tile floor. My head spins and I clutch at it, standing up and looking around. The hallway rapidly empties, and I still stand there, staring down at the unmoving body.
Perhaps I have seen less people drop than others have, perhaps it is because she is a regular, but I am unable to move from the spot, unable to ignore this and move on like every other drop that occurs around here. It becomes harder to breathe, and as I look around and take in the empty room, I realize that I am making a grave error, possibly a fatal one. It is inconceivable to miss a testing, and anyone walking has never skipped one. Ever. And here I am, bending over a dropped, alone.
Hands shaking, I stare at the now closed door towards the test hall and I run away from the body, ducking behind a corner, hugging my legs. My breath comes in gasps of ever increasing frequencies, and I stare at my hands, expecting any second to have the world darken around me and my body crumple uncontrollably to the ground for not leaving the body. It does not happen, and I let myself peer around the corner. Jane’s body is still lying there limply, glassy eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling. Something catches in my throat and I place my cold palm across my mouth. Seconds crawl past, and what feels like an eternity later comes a soft whirring noise. A small mechanical device rolls out from the vents and scans Jane’s body before a light beam suspends it above the ground. The device and the body move down the hall, and I get up to follow. It is almost instinct as I walk behind the device, not hiding, just striding in plain sight. Whether the device cannot sense me or just doesn’t acknowledge my presence, I do not know.
The device and the body reaches a restricted door and the doors slide open. Without hesitation I step through the doorway, wincing, as I expect pain, an alarm bell, for my legs to give way suddenly underneath my body. But nothing happens.
The hallway now is different from where we all reside. Instead of white and spotless, now it is made of a bumpy, jagged gray material that is rough to the touch. Flickering lights periodically create a dim white glow every few meters. Still, the device keeps moving, never slowing, never speeding up, Jane’s body still suspended grotesquely and the beam. It takes several minutes for it to reach the end of the hall, facing a rigid doorway made of a shiny silver material. The doorway slides open and I jog in after the machine and Jane’s body, only to freeze on the spot.
In front of me are rows and rows of bodies, hanging from metallic hooks attached to the ceiling. Millions of color wires extend from the bodies, curling around each other, connecting them to flickering computer screens along the walls. My eyes scan the room, every part of me tense and unmoving. I take in the bodies, their open chests displaying cords and wires and chips inside, destroyed and burnt out. I take in the tags hanging from their mouths, and I take in the bot lying Jane’s body on a sleek table. Knives extend from above and run down the length of her chest. I force myself to move closer. The machinery takes no notice as I watch in horror wires removed from Jane’s chest, cut and severed, and a small chip, covered in a slimy liquid lifted out from where her heart should be. The chip is moved towards a shelf where it is tucked between millions of other identical ones. A tag is slipped and hooked onto her lips and Jane’s body is hung up limply alongside what seems like endless rows of similarly dissected and unmoving bodies. I move towards her and reach for the tag on her lips.
PROTOTYPE 83578-T (J.A.N.E.)
TERMINATION TIME: 2:26 PM 18/07/14
I clap my hand against my mouth and shake my head slowly, dropping the tag like it’s fiery acid.
“No,” I whisper quietly to the silent room. The bodies stare, eyes wide and motionless, back at me. “No, we’re human. We’re not this.” I take several steps backwards only to bump into another table. A few files slip onto the floor. I stare at the pieces of paper and bend down. Various complex diagrams and codes stare back at me. I grit my teeth, hands shaking, and crunch the paper into a ball, throwing it across the room. It bumps into the foot of a body I do not recognize and falls to the ground. I stare at the bodies hanging around and take in their features. While their hair colors and eye colors are different their features mirror each other, like each was carved from the same body, with only a few accessories attached on to differ them. I feel sick, head spinning, and I grab the edge of one of the tables to steady myself. It is cold to the touch, jolting me back to my senses. I turn to run, and I turn to the closed door, slamming my hand against it again and again but it does not open.
I push my way through the hanging bodies, but no matter how fast I go I can’t see the end of them. I grab my own hand in panic and turn several times, only to back into the wall, biting my wrist to keep myself silent.
Suddenly, a searing pain runs through my head and my vision falters, flickers like static. I grab my forehead and slump to the ground as I feel running spasms through my muscles. It suddenly becomes impossible to hold myself upright, and I fall to the ground, gasping for air, eyes trying to stare through the darkness that begins to grow in my vision.
An emotionless voice suddenly speaks in electronic monotone. I clap my hand to my ear, where the sound seems to be coming from.
“Prototype 29485-B, L.I.L.Y., Translator and Linguistics Android Version 4.8. Status: failed. Self awareness, uncontrollable emotion, consistent error, discovering vital dangerous information. Status: terminating. Time: 3:17 pm 18/07/14.”
“No,” I whisper out, chest pounding. I once thought it was my heart. Now I know that there is nothing there but cold wires and computer chips. “No, I’m human. I’m alive. I’m not this. I am a human.”
My hand reaches towards the air. I examine it with a morbid curiosity, the skin smooth and uninterrupted, and the fingers tapered to a chillingly perfect edge. Merely seconds ago my body felt like a beautiful machine, a work of art shaped to functional perfection. Like it has my entire life. Now it feels like lead. It feels like dull, lifeless metal.
I take a deep, shuddering breath, yet no air enters my lungs. I feel no panic now. Instead, dull despair fills my veins where I once thought blood once ran hot and thick and alive. I let my hand drop, and despair is replaced by an eerie calmness. The light fades from the world around me, sounds fade out into nothingness.
“29485-B. Terminated.”

My head lolls to the side, then stills.