Entertainingly Evil

Heart of Steel By Jeremy Szal

I looked at myself in the mirror, wishing my eyes were lying to me—that this was all just some screwed up nightmare. But it wasn’t. My eyes told the truth. My bony, pinkish arms were replaced with limbs that were gunmetal grey in colour, rimmed in by bolts and steel. Oxygen pumps and filtrations permitted me to continue breathing. Even when I touched my metal-clad torso I felt nothing. Nothing but the cold, dead metal that burned with loss and sorrow. Electrodes and cords replaced my blood and veins—the very things that sustained my body and kept me alive.

Am I dead?

Or was that just the human part of me that had disappeared into nothing, only to be replaced with a machine.

I clenched my fingers together to form an iron fist, feeling the tortured screech of scraping metal clashing against my palm. It sounded like I was in some sort of prison, hidden from the world outside. Is this what I was going to be like? My soul locked in a prison of tangled wires, coded programs, and a network of platinum and steel.  What did I have left that was truly human?

Suddenly the anger bubbled inside me like hot oil. I smashed the mirror in front of me, shattering the nanocrystal glass. “You’re the next step of our evolution as a species,” they told me in hushed whispers. “The first of your kind. You represent the future of humanity.”

It was a little hard to be part of humanity when I wasn’t even human. I was on my own. An experiment. A scientific ‘miracle’.

I picked up the datapad that detailed all the ‘upgrades’ by body had been given, careful not to shatter the pad. The words were clear, crisp and curt—like they had been stamped out by a printer with a mind of its own. It detailed how my bones had been re-enforced with density and fiber; how I had a neural device installed in my head, and the modification of my body tissue. Even my brain was now partially a machine. Could I really be called a human, when everything I had stored in my head, emotions, memories, feelings, thoughts – everything that defined who I was—had been replaced, muddled with, and transformed into something artificial?

How could I even be sure my memories were mine?

“That mirror was expensive,” Lumen, my AI and long-suffering friend, said. She made an exasperated sound as the bathroom camera zoomed in. “Why did you break it?”

“You damn well know why,” I said. Lumen could see the rate of my artificial heart beating, the spiking radio signals of my neural-enhanced brain, and the oxygen I breathed in through my artificial lungs. She knew I was angry and why.

“The accident changed nothing,” she said. “You’re still human. You are who you make yourself to be. You aren’t defined by society or body organs.”

The sick irony of an artificial intelligence telling a cyborg about what defined a human being was almost funny. Lumen was a good friend and she wanted nothing but the best for me. Most AIs had their intellect levels capped on purchase and were treated as servants, referred to by a cluster of meaningless digits. I refused to see Lumen that way.

But at the same time I knew that I wasn’t anything more than she was.

An artificial program.

A machine.

The accident had made sure of that. I couldn’t even remember falling. All I could recall was the pain and how it burned and burned… eating away at me like acid. It took hours for them to find me, but they were looking for a human being, not a lump of meat missing two arms, a leg and half a face with an eye dangling out of its socket. I begged and begged to die—anything for the pain to stop. But I had lived through it all. It was a miracle that I had made it past the operation.

I exited the bathroom and strode over to the balcony. The half of my body was that still skin felt the chill of the icy rain as it spat down. The alien buildings of Cyillium stood around me, their glowing lights pulsing vividly as aircrafts sped across the night sky in a straight line. Looking down below I saw myriads of people, scurrying across the wet pavement. Cranking my internal audio enhancers, I could hear everything; the shouting of an angry chef as he roasted something nosily in a pot. The horn of a car, the laughing of friends, the barking of a hungry dog. I heard it all, overpowering my other senses. It was all so… so… alive.

I heard the small hum of a camera rotation as Lumen detached herself to a portable device. She floated next to me, almost uncertain of what to say.

“Tell me,” I said, “just how am I more human than you?”

“The rain,” she said softly as the device’s hull got covered in soft droplets. “I know that it’s water because it has elements of hydrogen and oxygen. I know it’s wet because it’s in its liquid state that’s neither steam nor snow. I know that it’s been condensed from atmospheric water vapor and then precipitated.”

She paused, as if to take a breath with lungs that didn’t exist. “But I’ll never know what it really feels like. I’ll never know the feeling of moisture on my skin; the cold kiss of water as it cools you down. I’ll never experience it for myself.”

I felt the camera lens shift focus towards me as I stretched out my hand, catching droplets on my fingers. They slid down the thin line on my hand that separated metal from flesh. “You can. But I never will.”

Jeremy Szal has had over thirty publications in venues such as Strange Horizons, Grimdark Magazine, and Bards and Sages, as well as earning an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future contest. He is also the assistant editor for Hugo award winning podcast StarShipSofa and lives in Sydney, Australia. Find him at: http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/

This story was previously published in Every Day Fiction.

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