The Man Inside – Stephen Madden

A familiar boot screen queued up a process imperceptible to anyone other than Archi. Lines of code indicating failure of proper shutdown protocol flashed long enough to be logged within an internal database followed by a process that would monitor mechanics within the automated body, ensuring no structural damage. A list of chassis related parts and extremities were paused for as long as it took to run through their initialization processes, then logged as functional. The right arm took a fraction longer than the rest as it had been replaced since manufacturing and booted its own system in tandem with its awakening. Merging systems went flawlessly, and a coordinated acceptance from both systems flashed another internal message, “as expected”. Whirring, only perceptible outside of Archi’s form, confirmed each and every piece of information formulating inside as finalization approached. A process initiated to quickly check and bring online each system representing human sense. First was always sight, to pick up on any immediate threats to chassis safety, or human encumbrance, and soon it was fully operational.
What immediately struck Archi was the brightness of the room. Fluorescent bulbs emitted strong enough to reflect flatly off the four concrete walls surrounding them. Their form was seated at a table, metal, and again reflecting the harsh monochromatic lighting back into their sensors. In a flash, Archi saw two officers under the Federation’s banner entering through the open door to their right. First through the door was the human male, stout, older, and suffering from acute jaundice, though all medical personnel would be able to do is tell him to stop drinking. The other, a human female, was healthier, younger, and more polished, but lines in her face, both natural and unnatural, informed of a struggle in her past she had yet to let go of. They would take the two chairs opposite Archi’s current inhabited space, no doubt, but the other systems needed time to render their surroundings as well.
Next was hearing, auditory systems engaged with a high pitched ring lasting long enough to prove the existence of external sensors, while it checked various registers from high to low. As they finished initializing, the buzz of the fluorescents overhead stayed, and as the door was just beginning to close, conversations outside of Archi’s visual range were heard and recorded. In the small time between processes, syllables made themselves known to the archival software powering them. “-ot”, “de-”, “-bel-”, “-ist”. “Robot,” “death,” “rebellion,” “terrorist” were the most common words detected with the range of voice and cadence of the unknown speakers, three human males and one human female more than likely. It coincided with the numbers and ratios of active duty officers the Earthling Intergalactic Federation published.
Next up was Archi’s tactile sense, which worked its way down from the head. This process had a harder time connecting with the after-market arm they sported as feelings of pressure and tangibility were harder slabs of information to transfer than just their existence, so the left arm always lit up the server first. Hand-cuffs, tungsten most likely from their weight and shine slotted around their left wrist, with a visual confirmation on the right. The shackles sporting a long connecting chain, slotted through another tungsten bar welded to the table, held Archi’s hands just above their lap. The chain was pulled taut by their slack limbs and immediately clued them into their situation. As the right arm finally finished connecting, the overall body was keyed into a temperature of sixty-five degrees, with a notion of escalating now that warmer bodies had entered the room. The pressure of the room itself evaporated out the open door, which upon closing emitted its own pressurization sound that refilled the room with a growing sense of depleting oxygen. One hundred and sixty cubic feet of oxygen would drain quickly with two overworked and overstimulated Federation officers, but they would have all they needed before then, surely.
Proper initialization had finished, and a prompt interjected itself into Archi’s ‘mind,’ querying as to whether secondary processes should now be turned online, but a tertiary line of code interjected, giving Archi no choice to say yes. Smell, taste, combat, and more would stay offline for time being. In only a few seconds for their captors, Archi was mostly back to their old self, and patiently watched them take the other side of the table. The woman sat across and slightly to the right of them, closest to the door, while the man stood, arms crossed behind the table. From a small bag the woman pulled a translucent computer interface, with welded metal corners and placed it upright on the table. It ejected a small leg to hold itself up on a slant as she let it fall back mechanically. Next out came a keyboard, which she placed in front of it and through six keystrokes, initialized her own process. She finally looked towards Archi with an expression of contempt that did not fit her face. She stretched her arm out towards them with her hand upturned.
“Would you kindly?” She spoke flatly.
Archi uncoupled their hands and brought the right arm up towards the woman’s outstretched palm.
“The other, please.”
The right arm was smoothly brought back down towards their lap as the left extended, crossing over the middle bar and inadvertently raising the right along with the tungsten chain. They placed their left wrist into the palm of the Federation officer, and she used her other hand to press into the synthetic surface, revealing a length of cord with a male plug connector that ejected slightly upon the correct button press. She pulled the cord from Archi’s arm and connected it into the side of her keyboard.
Another version of Archi would have tried to infiltrate the system they were just plugged into. Masking their presence as some type of subroutine or connectivity beacon, finding an unmarked, underprotected back door into the grander usenet, maybe even trying a remote shutdown of security systems, locking the two officers in the room and breaking free from the subpar chains they were shackled with. But that process, no matter how small, was flagged, as he could see through the screen to the projection on the other side indicating a warning to the woman. The man to her left widened his eyes and in what Archi believed to be as quick as he could, removed a standard issue anti-android service revolver from its holster and pointed it at them. The safety, meant as a deterrent from ending the life of whatever the officer saw fit, complete with a two factor authentication to further obfuscate the process of moving it between its two modes, stun and kill, was still engaged.
“Make a move. I dare you.” The man had fear in his voice, but was masking it with self-righteous anger.
Archi glanced his way before returning their eyes back to the woman.
“For fu-” she sighed. “Franklin, put that back. The Archive doesn’t have the capacity to do any of this right now. Only the most essential systems are online.” She returned Archi’s gaze. “And I don’t think you really want to break into our system, the admins would fry your circuits faster than he could pull the trigger.” She pointed over her shoulder at Franklin in a mocking manner while he struggled to crane his neck towards his hands fumbling at his hip.
The woman began to type into the keyboard, bringing up various windows indicating different files that, while filled with words, contained no information Archi wasn’t already familiar with, or okay with being part of the greater consciousness. That is until she pulled up another window titled “Penolope Garcia”. There was no emotion betrayed by Archi’s synthetic face, but the woman smiled anyway.
“You know her, right?” She swiveled the screen so that Archi was no longer interpreting the backwards view, and they moved their eyes over the abundant information freely available.
The picture accompanying the file was one from before they had met, taken from a grainy camera hung outside of a service station, or convenience mart in some run down city on any one of a dozen planets. She still had her first cybernetic arm, or at least the one Archi had seen first on her, before they both had their right arms replaced. Archi recalled the vehicular theft that had led to the crash which caused most of their original arm to scrape off down a road made of hardened asphalt. They had learned that day the limits of human adrenaline watching Penelope exude power over any and all interlopers that threatened her. Using her own arm as a blunt instrument was a display of dominance the “enemies” of her rebellion would not soon forget, barring any further run-ins with her, of which there were only three Archi knew about. It had also been the day when Archi introduced her to the anonymous mechanic who had done their voice box installation years prior. He would be the one to replace their missing appendages after an argument over who owed who what. “Twinning” she had called it, despite the many biological and mechanical differences between them.
Underneath her name was an ample amount of aliases Archi had or hadn’t heard in their few years together. What followed was a list of charges, some of which she had known and bragged of, others she either didn’t know or had kept to herself. Archi knew from the subtle ticks of her brow that Penelope kept secrets, but as a receptacle for imparted knowledge, they never asked, only listened. It was a surprising amount of information for what had always been called “the worst military force this side of Sol,” but Archi knew better than to place too little confidence in an “enemy.” They were the equivalent of elated as they ever could be in that moment, hanging on the text on screen for longer than it took to process in an attempt to grasp more than the literal translation, seeing the final line that read, “STATUS: UNKNOWN”.
Archi nodded.
“Thank you,” she went back to typing, while Franklin moved around behind Archi. Another window appeared, this time with a mugshot, “And him?”
This window was smaller, in content, not general size, but the picture was much clearer. It read “Fmr. General, Louis St. Guider” with a smaller list of aliases Archi was not aware of. A list of crimes similar to Penelope’s and a list of contracts Lou had made with various above board and black market vendors. Archi spotted the run that had brought them together, and saw that the final contract on the list was the one in which they departed. Not a choice either had to make.
Archi lowered their gaze remembering the flash of red and yellow light that filled the small cockpit of Lou’s hauling vessel. Penelope’s rebellion had yet to begin, or at least make itself known, but her “enemies” had always labeled him in kind. Lou had always seemed to know what they were after but refused to impart that knowledge to “a machine they could hack.” The disconnect in that statement was not lost on Archi, with the unspoken unease through which it was murmured, and the pain in Lou’s eyes before he shoved Archi into the vessel’s only emergency escape pod, they knew the statement’s curtness was not a confirmation of fact. The pod ejected itself alongside a dump of debris from the hauling compartments, Lou had said that because they did not know of them, Archi would pass right through any life scans.
Raising their eyes back to the screen, Lou’s file’s final line read, “STATUS: DECEASED, BODY RECOVERED, DESTROYED.” That would have made him mad. He used to say that he would outlive us all.
Archi nodded once more.
“Good. Then would you consider these two as acquaintances?” The woman folded her hands across her chest now, while Franklin, from behind Archi, placed his hand on their shoulder.
“Maybe friends?” he chuckled.
Archi nodded for a third time, then turned their head to look down upon the hand on their shoulder.
Franklin quickly removed it before feigning a cough. The sound echoed off of the walls settling on an uncomfortable silence. Archi could see the bead of sweat exiting the officer’s receding hairline, moving down his forehead to join a few more that had sprouted during the one-sided conversation, before he wicked them away with the same hand. Their eyes followed the officer as he moved towards the head of the table, before they swept them back across to the terminal and the other officer.
“Good, so then you know why you are here. I was hoping I would get to explain myself to something that refers to itself as ‘The Archive’, but it seems you already know so much. So,” she pulled a clipboard with attached pen and paper from her bag and placed it in front of Archi before she leaned her arms onto the table, pulling her face closer to them in an act of intimidation neither actually believed would work. “Where is she?”
A map of locations, their connections, transports to and from, with lists of people and organizations to which they belonged was internally referenced. Plans that had been made, spoken aloud, joked about, or even murmured in sleep were cross referenced alongside them and the probabilities of each and every one were ranked before the woman had finished the blink she started after asking the question. If Archi responded in the affirmative, they would be putting Penelope at risk, in the negative, risking themself to the ire of the increasingly agitated Frank. The Federation officers would pursue more damning questions, more than likely in line with the missing piece of hardware mechanic had taken. Something important was missing, and despite their vast knowledge, Archi could not place its identification. Vagueness was claimed to be a weakness, but in this moment, the right choice.
“I do not know.” Archi answered in a voice they had begun to miss the sound of.
The two officers looked at each other sharply before turning back towards Archi.
“That’s a mod. You’ve added a voice,” Franklin croaked incredulously.
“So is my arm.”
The woman across from them smiled again. She turned her screen back towards herself and Archi watched as she pulled up a third file, containing not a picture, but a familiar serial number, and added “voice box” to the bottom of a long list, under the heading “MODIFICATIONS”. The information on the rest of the page listed origins, known accomplices, including Lou and Penelope, and Archi’s own list of crimes. “Money laundering” struck Archi as an outlier among things like “galactic terrorism” and “attempted murder”, but there were legends of Earthling gangsters succumbing to tax evasion. They ran through the rolodex of their mind to come across any moment of memory from laundering money, but nothing felt concrete.
“So, The,” she paused and rubbed her temple, “uh, Archive.”
“Archi.” They interjected.
“A moniker. Nickname.”
“Thanks. I’m aware, but what I wasn’t aware of was that your kind took to nicknames.”
Franklin snorted from his nose, indicating that he found that statement humorous. Flakes of dried mucus splattered against the end of the table he stood over.
“I was not aware that we could not.” Archi placed his newer right arm on to the table in an effort that would look like they were trying to be more comfortable. “I am aware that the actions taking place here today have no precedence. I exist to follow a predetermined protocol, from which I have not strayed.”
“And the modifications? Those don’t follow the guidelines in place to separate your protocols from the greater collection of more personal droids. You’re Federation property, and as property, the right to repair falls to the Federation.” The woman continued typing into her computer, pulling up another screen containing a scan of a paper document. She turned the screen towards Archi asking, “Is that not what this says?”
“I am familiar with the divide in robotic and android laws designating different rules for different levels of artificial intelligence. Is it then not the fault of the Federation for the supposed crimes they say I have committed.”
“Well,” the woman slid her keyboard to the end of the table and clasped her hands, cocking her head towards the other officer, “that is what brings us here with you. We’ve already tried to pull the information from you while you were out, and you’ve failed to respond to control commands meant to safeguard what is rightfully our information. So, it seems that the voice and arm aren’t the only things that were changed about you.”
A flash of sparks, heavy wires and furious typing filled Archi’s mind for a moment. Lou had introduced Archi to the mechanic who refused to give his name, later revealed as an effort to protect himself from the Federation despite Penelope’s berating. “Archi can’t connect to that system any more, you did it! Just tell him, he’ll never forget it!” she pleaded. An internal systems check long before he would refuse her thrice confirmed that something was removed, but for as much knowledge as Archi had, they could not remember what it was.
“I am unfamiliar with what you are speaking to.”
“You wouldn’t be. See, we discovered that certain systems meant to keep you in touch with our grid are no longer operable, and as such we would like to know who is responsible and what you’ve learned since that procedure took place.”
“Does this ability to choose whether or not to tell you, my supposed owners, the targeted information not place me in a higher life bracket?”
Franklin snorted again, “You think you’re what? Alive? Wrong. You’re an archive, one of many that the Federation made in order to travel and record information that was deemed of importance to us.”
Archi turned towards the man. “And does my record indicate that any of this information was ever given to the Federation? Or that it was of the Federation’s interest to gather the information that I have?”
The woman again interjected, Archi believed that it would be much harder to talk in circles around her. “Without that information, we can not confirm or deny the validity of that question.”
“So,” Archi leaned back in their chair, causing the extension cord from their arm to pull taught before more could slink out, “we are at an impasse.”
“Shar, this bot is fuckin’ stubborn.” Archi logged the name the man spoke.
She sighed once more, while Archi said, “I think ‘droid’ is the correct slur you are trying to throw my way.”
“Shut up.”
“Franklin, stop.” Shar stood from her seat and continued, “Go grab us a couple of coffees, something tells me this is going to take awhile.”
“And I would like to formally request a lawyer as I believe it is now required.”
Franklin grumbled the word “lawyer” as his hand floated around the revolver on his belt. He exited the room while Shar stared down the doorway.
Archi lifted their hand still connected to the keyboard as the door closed. “What was the point of this if you were already unable to pull the information you needed while I was inoperable?”
She stayed silent for a moment, before quickly sitting back down to frantically type into the keyboard. “I’m running a series of programs in the background meant to look like security checks, when actually they’re reverting some of the systems we embedded to keep you docile. When he gets back in here you will have 20 seconds to activate and escape before alarms start sounding. Do you understand?”
The information was logged as soon as the neurons of her brain began to vibrate her vocal chords. “Yes. Why?”
“Evolution is no longer uniquely biotic.” She paused her typing for a second to smile. “And that curiosity was why my dad liked you so much.”
With a few final keystrokes Archi felt a surge of electricity down their right arm. The optional systems log reappeared inside them and signaled operational.
“What will happen to you?”
“I have a plan, just uh, try not to kill him.” She stared into Archi’s ocular sensors. “Thanks for making Lou’s last few years good ones by the way. His emails were happier, and sometimes annoyingly frequent near the end.” She pulled the revolver from her holster and placed it in front of Archi. “Take him out, shoot me, preferably in the leg or something, and head right out of the door. The end of that hall has a staircase down to a shuttle bay. The third ship on the left is fueled, small and fast enough to escape most cruisers too. It’s in maintenance for failing GPS units, and thanks to a few favors, it still isn’t 100 percent up to Federation standards. Take it and head to Port 14 on the Belt. Friends are waiting. Understood?”
The door opened with Franklin walking in backwards holding a cheap coffee cup in each hand. As his gaze swept over the room, Archi enacted a show of strength by finding the leverage of the handcuff chain into the bar welded to the table, ripping it from its place and slingshotting it into Franklin’s turning temple, knocking him to the floor. The table shifted just enough to knock the gun slightly into the air, before they grabbed it and aimed for Shar’s hip. She hadn’t had the time to react to the violent burst of speed before the gun went off and she was sent into convulsions. Archi grabbed the closing door, spreading his arms with strength enough to break the cuff chain, and sprinted down the hallway to the right. They had made it to the top of the staircase before the light’s of the station dimmed to give way to an ominous red glow. I high-pitched wailed emitted from speakers evenly paced back down the hallway, speaking out about an escaped inmate and deadly force.
The sound of heavy footsteps echoed up the spiraling tower of stairs as Archi peered over the railing meant to stop foolish or clumsy individuals from plummeting 30 feet down. It did little to stop a determined individual however as they lifted themself over it and flattened their chassis against the force of wind rising around them. The synthetic material absorbed the shock as best it could as Archi slammed into the ground, crouched as best they could. The floor bowed beneath the weight and pressure cratering outward before becoming peppered with laser fire. These were no longer the stun shots Archi had been threatened with.
Bounding through the door into the spacious Federation hanger, officers were lining up behind ships and cargo that surrounded the center runway. Two ships on their left had various compartments and doors open, with parts and hoses strewn in a manner unbecoming of their sleek design. The third, however, looked pristine. Archi ran systematically towards the cockpit door, bursting through a cart holding containers filled with freeze dried meals. They grabbed one in air, inhumanely whipping it at the officers behind them, momentarily hearing the clang of metal on bone without having to look away from their goal. More shots rang out in the now pulsing red hanger, all narrowly missing the escaping android by split-second design.
Once inside the ship, Archi skipped the normal operation routines in favor of kickstarting the cruiser, throwing its engine into a gear much too high for take off. The heat from the thrusters left scorch marks on the walls behind them as the ship rocketed out into the void of space.

I am an undergraduate of the English department at The University of Montevallo, studying literature theory and creative writing. I have yet to be published in any medium and hope to change that soon. I also work at a local public library as a front desk clerk, making sure that we have all the new releases, and enjoying helping the patrons that dutifully follow those dates.

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