Sarah expected the room to be white. The rooms in the movies were always white. When the black suits with ear pieces showed up at her door, she’d just assumed it would be a white room.
The brown, overstuffed couch was covered in leather so soft she couldn’t believe it used to be skin. The door opened and a generic man in a pressed blue suit with a white shirt and red tie stepped in. He pulled off his frameless glasses and rubbed them on his sleeve. “Good evening, Mrs. Stewart.”
He stopped cleaning and lifted his eyes. “My apologies, Ms.” He raised an eyebrow.
Sarah gave a curt nod.
He put his glasses back on. “Ms. Begress.” He walked to the desk and picked up the manila folder. “I apologize for the mistake.”
Sarah hadn’t seen the folder there, blending into the oak desk. But now she couldn’t unsee it. Nobody kept anything good in manila folders. It was always taxes and divorce papers. Even the good stuff, like property or car deeds, were all there just in case something went wrong. “It’s ok.”
“You’re file still has your name as Stewart.” He laid one leg up on the corner of his desk and unbuttoned his jacket.
“I haven’t filed the papers yet. I’m going next week.”
His lips drew to a line and he ran his hand through his thinning, brown hair. “I see. It’s a hassle, all that paper work.” He flipped through the papers in the folder. His fingers had thick calluses in strange places and the edges of his nails were rough.
“Second biggest hassle I’ll have to deal with this week.” Sarah leaned back and let herself sink into the couch. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave her best annoyed look.
“Yes, I’m sorry, Ms. St… Begress. I apologize for the secrecy, it’s part of the job.” He slid off the desk and extended a chewed-up hand. “My name is Agent Johnson.”
His handshake was too firm. He had her locked in his office in the middle of DC and he still had to show how strong he was. Sarah wanted to slap him for it, but she just waited, trying to keep the frustration off her face. “Nice to meet you.”
Johnson turned away and retreated behind his desk. “You must be wondering why you’re here.” He looked up, waiting for Sarah to answer, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of answering useless questions. He continued, “It’s about your husband.”
Johnson looked at her over his glasses. “Paperwork hasn’t gone through on that either?”
“Not yet. It’ll go as soon as I can get him to sign it.”
“How long have you been separated from your husband?”
“Can you be more specific, please?”
Sarah knew it wasn’t a request, but she didn’t want to fall into the trap of answering. The immigration officers had done the same thing; lulling her into answering easy questions before getting to the point. “Over a year.”
Agent Johnson grabbed an oversized pen that stood tip down on the desk. It was dark maroon with gold trim. He twisted the top and started writing. Sarah couldn’t believe that somebody still took notes on paper. He let the pen droop in his hand. “Tell me, did you know the type of work your husband was in?”
“He’s a biomechanical engineer and he did a lot of work for the US Government. It’s how I ended up in this armpit of a city. You know it’s probably 73 on the coast of Maine today.”
“I’m sure it’s beautiful. Did your husband…”
Johnson set the pen down a little too hard and pulled off his glasses. “How about we call him Bradford.”
The laugh snuck out before Sarah could stifle it. “No, I’m sorry. He must hate when you call him that. Just call him Brad.”
“Brad it is. Do you know any more specific details of what Brad was working on?”
“He’d tell me sometimes, but honestly, I didn’t care.”
“Please, Ms. Begress. Try to remember.”
“He worked on places where humans and machines interacted. I know he did stuff with wounded soldiers. He was always telling me the Paralympics were a better show than their normie counterparts because it was the scientists behind the athletes as much as the athletes themselves.”
Agent Johnson picked up his pen and scratched out another note.
Sarah felt the stress migraine starting at the back of her head. “Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but if he’s gotten himself into something bad, I had nothing to do with it. I’ve got my own life now. A boyfriend, a good job, and I just got a cat. Even before I left him, we weren’t close.”
The pen stopped mid scratch. Johnson pushed the file away and leaned over the desk. “But you were close at some point?”
“We were married, for Christ’s sake. Please, just tell me what you want from me.”
Johnson looked up and she sensed him taking her measure. He gave a quick nod and said, “We need you to identify your husband for us.”
Sarah felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach. She tried to open her mouth, but nothing came out. Brad…
Agent Johnson stood up. “You were partially correct. Mr. Stewart has been working for the U.S. government. But it wasn’t for wounded soldiers. He did that on his own time. He was working on ways to speed up control over machines. More specifically, we wanted better drones.”
Sarah couldn’t speak. She couldn’t believe he was dead. Brad was a lot of things, but he was still her first love.
Agent Johnson leaned closer to Sarah. “There is some… someone that is claiming to be your husband. But it doesn’t… look… like Mr. Stewart.”
Air rushed back into Sarah’s lungs. “He’s alive.”
Agent Johnson sighed. “We’re not sure.”
“Just test his DNA.”
“Ms. Begress…. There is robot here that is claiming to be Brad. He claims he’s successfully transferred his mind into the machine.”
Sarah pushed out of the couch. “Take me to him.”
The corner of Agent Johnson’s mouth twitched up into what could have been a smile, but it faded back to the thin, straight line almost as fast as it came. “Follow me.”
The white marble floor in the hallway had deep gray swirls. Agent Johnson’s heels clicked as he walked and the echo bounced off the glass walls that separated the offices on either side. The black suits had only allowed her to grab a pair of old running shoes on the way out the door. They squeaked with each step.
She let her eyes wander to the other rooms, but most had the curtains drawn. The people she did see were all dressed well. There was a good chance she was the only person in this building wearing sweatpants.
Agent Johnson turned a corner and stopped at a wood door with no handle. He ran a badge over the security panel and a green light flashed. She expected Johnson to push the door open, but it swung in on its own.
Two soldiers in gray camo stood with machine guns leveled at them. “State your name and purpose.”
“Sgt. Coliver, good to see you. Your attention to protocol is always appreciated.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’m Agent Johnson and this is Sarah Stewart whose preferred name is Sarah Begress. We are going to interview room ES-9.”
Coliver lowered his weapon. “Thank you, Agent Johnson. Please head straight there.”
“Thank you, Sargent.”
Coliver stepped to the side and Sarah followed Johnson through the door.
The hallway was completely white, much more like what she’d expected. Sarah would have laughed but something about the place made her skin crawl.
Johnson stopped at a white door and repeated the same procedure he had a second before, but with a man he called Lieutenant.
When was the last time she’d seen Brad? Not on a call, but actually seen him? More than a year. He missed the make-up dinner they scheduled for the anniversary he missed. She’d drunk the bottle of wine herself and gone that night to rent her apartment.
Sarah blinked. Johnson had stepped into the room and was looking at her with a tilted head. Sarah gave a nod. “Yes, sorry. I was lost in thought.”
“Understood, now if you would, please.” He motioned for her to enter.
The room was almost black and Sarah had to wait for her eyes to adjust.
“I apologize for the low light. Normally you would be able to see into the room beyond. There is two way glass between us and…”
“Why the curtains?”
“We’ve found that the subject can see through the mirrored glass.”
The lump in Sarah’s throat grew.
“When you’re ready, you can enter the room through this door. There is a table and chairs. You can sit as close or as far from the subject as you like, however we ask that you not touch or come within arm’s reach of it.”
It, Sarah thought. What has Brad gotten me into this time? There was no point in stalling. She pressed the door open.
The sound of grating metal filled the room as the robot sitting on the other side of the silver table stood. Chains that would have looked more at home anchoring a tanker boat shackled the metal arms to the floor. “Sarah! No!” The inflection and tone were perfect, and the voice was unmistakable. But there was something inhuman about the sound, like how it’s easy to tell the difference between live and recorded music.
Sarah had seen robots. They were uncoordinated, hunks of metal that suggested a human shape more than mimicked one. But this was different. What sat across from her had rounded limbs and hands. It had eyes that gave a slight glow and a silver mouth that opened when it spoke. It was a work of art more than a robot.
“Sarah, I’m sorry. I don’t know why they keep doing this.” The metal arms slammed against the table and Sarah jumped back. The cold wall pressed against her back. She turned to exit, but there was no handle.
Johnson’s voice filled the room. “It’s ok, Sarah. It can’t hurt you as long as you keep your distance.”
The robot’s voice grew louder. “I would never hurt her!” Its eyes turned and focused on her. “Sarah, you know I would never hurt you.”
Something in the voice was still off, but the pleading came through nonetheless. She turned and forced herself to meet the blue glow of the eyes. There was nothing there. No emotion, no flicker of understanding, nothing.
“Sarah, it’s me, Brad.”
Sarah swallowed the lump in her throat. She opened her mouth to respond but found the words lacking. She shook her head from side to side.
The robot sat down with a clank. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s me. This is what I’ve been working on. This is what I couldn’t tell you about.”
“So, you’re somewhere in the building controlling this thing?”
It put the index and middle finger of each hand to its temples and rubbed circles. Sarah’s stomach tightened. She’d seen Brad do that a hundred times when he was frustrated. It looked up. “I was working on controlling machines with the human mind. I had a theory that it would be easier to control a humanoid machine, easier for the mind to understand. See, you know how to move your hand with your mind, so it’s easier to think about that than to think, ‘Fire up the engines’, you follow?”
“Come on, Sarah. Don’t look at me like that. It was a mistake. I was upping the connection more and more and then…” it looked down at its hands, “here I was.” It looked up and met her eyes. “Please, Sarah. You have to believe me.”
Like a Tetris block falling into place, it made sense. “It’s not me you have to convince,” She point at the mirror. “They don’t believe you.”
“No. They think I programmed the robot to act like me.”
“What? No!” The robot threw its hands up and the chains drug across the concrete floor.
Sarah felt the smile tug at her mouth. “It sounds like something Brad would do.” She raised an eyebrow at the robot.
The mechanical lips curled and Brad’s laugh came from the machine.
Sarah’s breath caught as the short bursts of sound split by punctuated breath intakes filled the room. Whether this was Brad or not, the laugh was his. Sarah pulled the chair out and sat down. The robot folded its hands on the table and leaned in. Sarah asked, “How long?”
“The robot project has been in the works for almost five years. This is the most advanced unit they’ve made so far. It’s really quite…”
Sarah put up a hand, “No. How long have you been…” She couldn’t find the right word.
“In here? Almost a month now.”
“And that whole time you’ve been here?”
The robot nodded. “I panicked and went to the leadership. I have to say, seeing your own lifeless body is… disturbing.” The robot placed a finger on its chin. “Come to think of it, I’m probably the first person to have ever had that experience. At least in a physical way. I know the out of body experience seems to be as old as human’s them…”
“Yes, dear. Oh sorry, I was getting distracted. I went to the commanding officer and told him what happened. They put me here. The thing about machines is that I don’t need to eat or use the bathroom, so I haven’t left this box. I just sleep and wait for them to bring some new doctor or person to try to prove what I’m saying.”
“Did you ever work on drones or were you lying the whole time?”
“I did. Until the robot. They wanted fully controlled humans too, but there is so much more on a robot than on a drone. You can’t control a robot with the needed delicacy with a joy stick. You can have them move arms, but what if you want to control just a finger? How many buttons would you need? So they brought me in.”
“You’re work with the soldiers. You could control a finger.”
Brad turned to the one-way mirror and raised a hand. He bent the fingers on his right hand so that his middle finger stuck straight up, “You see this, Johnson? I can control one finger.”
The laugh came from deep inside of Sarah.
The robot kept his finger pointed at the mirror but he turned his head to Sarah. “I know, you think it looks better like this.” Brad extended his thumb to the side and pulled the knuckles of his ring and index finger forward so they framed his middle finger.
Sarah copied him, but directed the gesture at the table. “It just looks better that way.” She balled her fist, leaving the middle finger standing alone. “It just looks childish how you do it.”
“So you always say.” Brad smiled and leaned forward. “I’ve missed you, Sar-bear.”
The comment pulled Sarah’s soul back out of the moment. “Don’t call me that.” She pushed back from the table.
The robot lifted his hands and the chains caught again. “I’m sorry, Sarah.”
It was too late, anger flooded into her. “You don’t get to call me that. If you’re not Brad, that was his name only. And if you are…”
“I am. Please, you have…”
“I don’t have to do anything.” The robot sat back. Sarah took a breath, “If you are Brad, which I doubt, then you gave up rights to that name a year ago.” The walls seemed to be closing in on her. She turned to the mirror. “Agent Johnson, get me out of here.”
“Sarah, no. Please, I’m sorry. Don’t leave me here!”
Johnson’s disembodied voice floated into the room. “We don’t have conclusive proof one way or another, Ms. Begress.”
“Conclusive proof? There is no conclusive proof! If this is just a program, it has all the memories, mannerisms, and knowledge that Brad had!”
There was a pause and the air seemed to get heavier. Finally, Agent Johnson spoke, “You see our dilemma now. Please, if you could ask questions that test the depth of its knowledge.”
“Here’s a question for you, Agent Johnson. Why not just pull the source code he used? You should be able to see what he did.”
“Believe me, Ms. Begress. We’ve tried. Please, help us understand.”
Sarah shook her head. “When will it ever be enough proof for you, either way?”
The robot spoke with Brad’s voice. It was stunted, but gentle. “You’re using your maiden name.”
Sarah turned and the robot sat with his face in his hands and its elbows resting on the table. There was almost no difference between the metal of the robot and the table. Sarah steeled herself. “We’re divorced.”
Its head lifted. “I didn’t sign anything!”
“You won’t have too. After this, I’m a widow.”
“I’m not dead! Sarah, I miss you.”
Maybe it was the way it tilted its head or the tone of the voice, but either way, Sarah knew it was sincere. But she couldn’t let it go on. “It’s over, Brad.
“It can’t be. Didn’t you get the flowers? The cards? You never wrote back.”
“I didn’t have to. I already gave you your last chance.”
“That can’t be it. Sarah, we’re meant to be.”
Sarah shook her head. “Can’t you understand? It doesn’t matter. If they decide you’re just a program, you’ll never be allowed to leave. They’ll keep you for study. And if they believe you are Brad, they’ll do the same.”
“It can be different. If they’d give me my body, I can try to reverse the process. See, instead of having the machine read my brain like a book, I decided to send my brain waves to the machine like a video. I just went too far. But I can undo it.” Sarah must have given him a look because Brad backpedaled. “I know my body is alive. I saw them hooking it up to the ventilator before they locked me up.”
Sarah shook her head. “It still doesn’t matter, I’ve moved on.”
The robot’s eyes went wide and then narrowed to little more than slits. It leaned forward. “What does that mean?”
“It means I don’t want to be with you even if you fix all this.”
“There’s someone else.”
Sarah hesitated a second too long. The robot slammed its fists down and the table folded. The sound was a thunderclap in the small room. Sarah ran for the door. She pounded her fists on it. “Let me out! Dammit, Johnson, let me out.”
“Not yet, Ms. Begress.
The robot stood and pulled on the chains. Its voice boomed with inhuman volume. “It’s Stewart!”
The chains pulled tight against the massive bolts in the concreate. Something cracked and Sarah spun. The entire bolt had pulled loose with the concreate still around it. Sarah screamed as the robot whipped the wrecking ball into the glass.
Sarah dove across the room and covered her head, but instead of the sound of shattering glass, she heard a dull thud.
Agent Johnson’s voice was as calm as ever. “The room was designed to hold much worse than this robot.”
“You shouldn’t have ever built this thing! I should have never gotten involved.” There was a thunk as the robot dropped to its knees on the concrete floor.
And then it made a noise she recognized: a sob.
Sarah pushed herself to her hands and knees, staring at the robot. It sobbed again.
She crawled across the floor until she was looking up into the feint glow of the robot’s eyes. They were dry.
She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Brad. The chains screeched as the cold arms wrapped around her. Sarah felt the heat build behind her eyes. “Brad, what have you done to yourself?”