Chapter 7: What is Sentience?

Maq’s glowing eyes remain fixed on the projection before him. A wide-eyed news anchor reports on a recent altercation involving an experimental android and four police officers, an incident involving Maq. Maq feels a funny sensation, like it’s somehow existing outside of its shell right now. The anchor’s words echo around it, pounding through to its core. The beating is so hard and the discomfort so strong that Maq withdraws from reality. It’s just it and the holoscreen.
 “The officers involved have sustained a variety of injuries and are now getting treatment at a local hospital,” she recites in a matter of fact tone that makes Maq feel even worse about the report. It’s astounded that a flesh and blood being can somehow sound colder than one made of metal and wires. “It’s currently unclear as to just how this street brawl started. From the footage we’ve collected, it appears as though the officers intended to detain the Synthetic prototype known as Maq and his bodyguard who has been identified as Gorson Rels, a nan under the employ of the Sundance Corporation.”
Maq crosses its arms in front of its chest. It’s changed into a soft long sleeve with the iconic Sundance logo positioned right beneath the collar. It slides its thumbs against the welcoming fabric, taking comfort in the pulsations that shoot up through its fingers. Gorson watches the mechanical boy closely as the broadcast shifts over to a replay of the fight between them and the officers. Maq trembles at the sight of its own lethal precision. Deydrick paces around at the back of the room issuing commands to one of his lawyers.
“Tell them that we demand a formal and very public apology,” he orders. He’s silent for a moment before saying, “I don’t care if they do or do not consider Maq to be a living thing, this still has lawsuit written all over it.”
Werlen remains silent as he stands still at the back corner of a black leather sofa. He types away on his comm, pausing every now and then to peek up and observe Maq’s behavior. He’s fascinated by how the thing fidgets like a real teenager facing the consequences of their actions. Maq can’t cry, but Gorson can tell how the little machine is feeling. He notes the subtle twitching of the corners of its mouth and the quick fluttering of its eyelids.
He places a firm hand on Maq’s shoulder and says, “How about we turn this off now, Maqquew?”
Maq shakes its head. The clip has been played numerous times by this point, but on every loop, a new piece of information gets added to the mix. It’s this promise of new content that keeps Maq hooked on the broadcast. That and the fact that it still can’t process the sight of it brutalizing all of those people. It never observes how fiercely Gorson fought as well, only how easily it inflicted injuries upon its attackers.
“Come on, no good comes of reliving it…” Gorson pleads.
“I need to see this,” Maq whimpers.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Gorson argues, giving Maq’s shoulder a squeeze. “I told you to fight back.”
“It was my choice though.” Werlen has to strain his ears to hear Maq’s metallic whispering. “This is what they were afraid of wasn’t it. I didn’t even feel bad when I did it.”
“But you do now don’t you?” Gorson offers.
Maq shrugs in reply.
“I can tell you do.”
Werlen takes a break from his typing to watch as Gorson hugs Maq from behind and holds him steady.
“Let’s stop punishing ourselves about this, yeah?” Gorson suggests again.
“Wait,” Maq gasps.
The newscast switches over to a shot of the Keenan pavilion where a horde of reporters and photographers wait like predatory hounds for Syra and her cohort to exit the building. 

Syra steps out into view of the cameras. The rest of the committee is with her, but they remain a few steps behind, exposing her fully to the media. Deep creases beneath her eyes make her look tired. She stands before the reporters as they converge in on her and shout over one another. She throws her hands up into the air and brings her gaze to the ground. As though she cast a spell on them, the mass of people actually shut up at her silent command. Once she lifts her face back up, she immediately points to one of the people in the crowd who wastes no time in charging up before her with an amplifier held out.
“Miss Bensten,” the plucky young wonan begins, “What are your thoughts on the incident between Sundance’s Synthetic and the police?”
“I’ve only just barely had time to review the footage myself,” Syra explains. “I’ll need further time with it before drawing any definitive conclusions. On one hand though, I can say that it is exactly this kind of destructive capability that motivated this committee to reject Deydrick’s proposal to move forward with Sundance’s Project Eidan. At the risk of contradicting this statement, I would also say that it appeared to me as though Maq and his protector might have been provoked by our nen and wonen in uniform. I checked Deydrick’s paperwork and confirmed that he did clear the transport of his Synthetic prototype with the station so I think they owe us all an explanation for putting innocents at risk. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to assess the situation enough to comment further right now.”
At this dismissal, a flood of voices call out to her, but she turns her back to the crowd and waves her entourage back into the building.

                Maq shakes at the sight of Syra on the screen and the sound of her calm voice coming through the speakers. Gorson hangs onto it while leaning around flipping off the projector. The broadcast flickers away into thin air, leaving Maq to stare at a tan wall.
                “That’s enough of that, now,” Gorson announces, leading Maq over to the sofa. “Just take a seat for a moment, and try to relax, alright.” He watches as Maq obediently sinks into the cushions.
                “Gorson’s right, it’ll all be okay,” Deydrick interjects as he hangs up from his call and strolls over to them. He takes a knee in front of Maq and holds its hands as he continues, “You didn’t do anything wrong, you hear me?”
                Maq doesn’t meet its “father’s” gaze, it can’t. All it can do is nod reluctantly.
                “I mean it, kiddo,” Deydrick insists. “I just got off the comm with someone who’s going to take care of this for us. Those officers broke the law when they wrongfully pulled you over and then they broke a few more when they assaulted you. You did the right thing in keeping Gorson, Tompton, and yourself safe.”
                “They’re hurt though…” Maq’s tone is as sweet as a child’s. It’s enough to make Werlen stuff his comm into his pant pocket.
                “Sometimes that happens, Maq,” Deydrick consoles him.
“You didn’t mean to, they gave us no choice,” Gorson adds. “I hurt some of them too, did I do something wrong?”
Maq shakes his head and looks up as he replies, “You were just protecting me.”
“And you were protecting me. That’s what family does, Maq.”
The machine nods in apparent understanding and acceptance, though there’s no way for anyone in the room to truly know whether Maq grasps what they’re saying. It’s astoundingly like teaching a lesson to a boy.
“How about you and Gorson head to the lab and run a diagnostic, make sure everything’s in order,” Deydrick suggests, letting go of one of Maq’s hands to give it a pat on the knee.
“Okay,” the machine agrees, more out of obedience than genuine enthusiasm for the idea.
“That’s my boy.”
Deydrick rises to his feet and pulls Maq up into an enveloping hug. Maq looks to Gorson who then guides it out of the room. Doctor Limoy looks on as his “boy” leaves, worry creasing his brow.

Werlen observes in silence, unsure of exactly what he’s bearing witness to. Maq is so much more than he expected. He’s unsure of whether this is a good thing though. Such an independent and fragile being isn’t quite what he needs right now, but he’s confident Deydrick can come through for him.
“He’s really quite remarkable,” Werlen comments with his hands folded in front of him.
Deydrick spins around, forgetting that he’s not alone. “Yes, he is my pride and joy.”
“Do you really think of him as your son?” Werlen’s tone is flat. His inflection is more of academic interest rather than judgement.
Deydrick looks back to the doorway as though he can still see Maq there and answers, “Yes.” A sinking feeling drops through his chest and he twists his head back around. “I mean, I’m not crazy, I know that I can’t bring my boy back from the dead. What I mean is that Maq is also my son. And there’s some of Kyren in him too…”
“I’m not judging you, Doctor,” Werlen stops him. “It seems to me that there’s some of Kyren in all the technology that you’ve developed. Thanks to you, this is the age of near-flawless navigation systems. There are countless sons and daughters who have been spared from tragic shuttle accidents like the one that took your son. There’s no shame in stating that he’s inspired the work you’ve done and it’s more than okay that Maq is the culmination of how you’ve decided to honor Kyren’s memory.”
Doctor Limoy’s lungs tighten and his head starts to spin. The truth is on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t bring himself to spit it out. “I have something to show you before you excuse me from the mad scientist label.”
Deydrick motions for the agent to follow him out through the doorway at the other end of the room. He marches forward, his heart beating in his chest. Very few people know the truth about Project Eidan and he’s not sure how Agent Myurk will take it.
“Project Eidan isn’t exactly what people might think,” he starts to explain as he leads Werlen down a light blue hallway.
“How’s that?” Werlen pries.
“It’ll be easier to show you than to tell you, I think. I understand that I would have eventually needed to make the truth public, but until we had greater promise of the project being allowed to move forward, I couldn’t risk the judgement that would inevitably arise from our proprietary … technique.”
“The suspense is killing me, Doctor,” Werlen teases, a thin smirk emerging.
“All I ask is that you have an open mind.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Werlen assures him.
Deydrick’s throat becomes dry and scratchy and he thinks that his shoes click too loudly against the white tile floor. The world suddenly seems to be closing in around him and he’s not sure if he’s ready to share his truth with Werlen. They did just meet after all, but this is his last chance to make his swansong a global phenomenon. The pair comes to a stop before a pair of sliding glass doors barring entry to a sparkling green and chrome lab.
“Here we are,” Deydrick sighs.
“Here we are,” Werlen repeats, trying to hide the nervous anticipation in his voice.
With shaking hands, Deydrick lifts his ID badge up to the scanner. The device chirps and the doors part ways with a swish. They step inside and Werlen eyes the lab. Its walls are lined with drawers making it look a little bit like an overly colorful morgue. He turns his attention to the medical table in the room’s center where a naked shell lays lifelessly. It has a feminine build though Werlen notes that the thing has no private parts. There’s just a hip piece that fills out its midsection. Werlen finds this to be an interesting design decision, but remembers that Deydrick was adamant that his vision was not for Synthetics to become mere sex-bots. He supposes that this is one way of guaranteeing that will never happen.
“Is she totally out of commission?” Werlen inquires.
“Yes, she’s not really even a ‘she’ yet. She’s just a shell of one waiting to be filled,” Deydrick explains. “Haiben 1337,” he commands the thing.
The machination’s eyes pop open. “Diagnostic program online,” it states in a voice that’s distinctly female.
 “Configuration 3,” Deydrick instructs.
The shell brings itself to a seated position. Werlen marvels at how fluidly it moves and how its snow-white, shoulder-length hair flows just like the real thing. 
“Each shell is equipped with a set of diagnostic programming,” Deydrick starts. “It doesn’t do much. It mostly just allows us to ensure that the shell is functional and ready for a persona. Once installed, the persona will overwrite all of this programming.”
“Makes sense. Why Haiben?”
“It seemed like a fitting reference to the myth. Are you familiar with it?”
“Only in that I know Haiben was a magical fruit of some kind. I was never much for the tales of old,” Werlen answers.
“The Hands of Chaos presented Haiben, a glorious fruit to the Illemuins. They ate from it with delight not knowing that it would change them. They began to feel a strange calling to the sea and an intense craving for that majestic fruit. Eventually it changed them into the beings we now know as Fendaren. Those that did not eat from that fruit later evolved into Hyunans and the rest is history or legend, I suppose. I was always a bit of a mythology nerd, so I thought it quite clever to have the diagnostic program respond to this word. This program is the fruit that will eventually allow them to be born anew, born as something greater, more sophisticated. Right now, they are innocent and docile like the Illemuins, though far less conscious, of course.”
“That’s some deep stuff, Doctor.”
“Indeed,” Deydrick agrees, stroking the shell’s hair.
“What is it that makes the personas work?” Werlen attempts to get Deydrick back on topic. “What makes them so lifelike?”
“Well…” Deydrick pulls himself away from the table and moves over to a holomonitor. He makes a few taps on the projected interface until he’s opened a folder of files with names on them. “These are some of our personas. They are the true essence of Project Eidan. The personas are the breath of life that makes a shell into a Synthetic. They are the heart, mind, and soul, of a Synthetic. They also aren’t really AIs like everyone assumes.”
“What do you mean?” It’s Werlen’s turn to feel his heart beating in his chest. He wonders what the personas could possibly if they aren’t some kind of software package.
Deydrick’s fists clench and his breathing tightens. This is it, this is where he’ll have to bare all or lose it all. He taps on one of the files. It expands to take up a larger portion of the screen and then a number of smaller files spider outward from it with lines connecting them at the center.
 “Personas like Maq’s are compiled from the memories of Hyunans. They are carefully arranged and deposited into a shell’s central processing matrix. There’s a little bit of software built in to allow the persona to have full control over its shell as well as to run some unconscious subroutines, but other than that, Synthetics are largely defined by their very Hyunan experiences.”
Werlen’s hands drop to his sides and he stumbles back a little. “Wait, you said that there’s some of Kyren in Maq…”
“Yes, before I buried my son, I extracted some of Kyren’s memories. Those became the basis for Maq. They’re still not the same, of course. Maq isn’t weighed down by any of the troubles that Kyren had, he only got the best and brightest memories my son could offer. The gaps were filled in using memories from paid participants. There were some things we needed to round out the persona. The martial arts didn’t come from Kyren either, but they seemed like a good idea to include.”
Werlen’s mouth hangs open for a moment, words failing to fill it.
“Earlier in my career, I tinkered a great deal with artificial intelligence. It became something of an obsession of mine. But no matter how crafty I got, there was never anything really intelligent about them. Every AI I made was cold and calculating. Some of them could understand Hyunan emotions, but they couldn’t feel them, even when given bodies that had sensory receptors. It was in my son’s last moments that I realized that I realized intelligence, true intelligence, comes from Hyunan experiences. When he died, project Eidan was born.”
“How did you extract the memories?”
“We’ve been developing experimental machines to copy memories into data. The process can be performed on anyone either living or recently deceased. The original intent was to use it for things like creating implants for those suffering from elderly diseases that cause memory distortion or to construct video montages for people’s funerals so that the guests can literally see the highlights of the deceased’s life flash before them. Both of those concepts are obviously still in development.”
“This is all very heavy,” Werlen huffs.
“Has your interest in our project changed then?”
“No, not at all. Your work is incredible. Perhaps this is even better than I’d hoped for.”
Deydrick crosses his arms and squares off to the agent. “What are you hoping for?”
Werlen shifts uncomfortably before replying. “Now it’s my turn to ask you to keep an open mind.”
“Okay,” Deydrick agrees with an uneasy edge in his tone.
“There’s a storm coming… I’d like to get in front of it.”
“That’s a little cryptic isn’t it?”
“Much of why I’m here is highly classified.”
Deydrick gives the agent a shrug and raises his eyebrows expectantly.
“There’s good reason to believe that war will soon break out with Klenmalruna and perhaps Suklarana as well,” Werlen continues.
“And you think you can assemble a small army of my Synthetics…” Deydrick interjects.
“Hey, listen. You want to prove to the world that Synthetics can be our protectors? Well this is your chance. You partner with me on this and the world will see your work the same way you do. If you agree to operationalize all fifty of your shells as agents for us, I will guarantee that Project Eidan will get approval to proceed to the full extent that you have envisioned it. You will also receive compensation for the overhead of delivering these resources to us.”
A dead silence hangs in the air as Deydrick’s mind reels with the proposition. This is simultaneously the best offer he could hope for and the worst nightmare he could dream up.
“They were never designed for this kind of use,” he protests.
“I understand that. How fast could your technicians design more combative personas?”
“I’m not sure we have the proper memory files to even construct more than a few.”
Werlen nods. “What if we could provide you with a library of experiences from some of the most highly trained agents in our ranks and most loyal soldiers in our army?”
“Then I suppose we could make something work,” Deydrick guesses, no longer sure what he’s really doing. He feels trapped, like this is his only option, which of course, it is, though I’d rather he abandon this fool’s project entirely.
“Do we have an accord then?”
Deydrick pauses to inhale sharply. “We do.”
Werlen breaks into a full grin and thrusts his hand out to Deydrick. The doctor takes it and gives it an unsteady shake.
“A word of warning,” Deydrick breaks in as he releases his grip, “Once imprinted, it’s impossible to reprogram a shell with a new or modified persona. I specifically designed the Synthetic architecture to prohibit this.”
“Understood. Do you happen to have any shells that have not yet undergone the redesign?”
Deydrick nods and leads them over to one of the drawers. He pops it open to reveal a slab with a far more Hyunan-looking male shell lying unconscious. This one has dark skin, curly hair shaped into miniature dreadlocks, and a strong jaw. Excepting its featureless private region, it could very easily be mistaken for a Hyunan male.
“Amazing,” Werlen comments.
“We have five that we still need to reshape.”
“Save them,” Werlen requests. “Would it be possible for them to receive personas that are almost entirely shaped by the exact memories of some of our most trusted agents? It would be preferable for them to even be unaware of their own nature if that’s possible.”
“We’d have to do a little bit of work and take care in the process, but yes, why?”
“Just trust me on this one, if you would.”
Deydrick feels as though he might throw up, but replies with “Fine.”
He knows he’s going against all of his ideals on this one, but he’s in too deep now. Whatever the agent wants, the agent will get. He just hopes that this won’t destroy his vision for the Synthetics. He also fears that this decision will destroy his relationship with Maq. His heart breaks at knowing he’s effectively selling off the brothers and sisters he promised it would have.

He has no understanding of the multitude of ripples he has just unleashed upon this world. He can’t even imagine how his vision of salvation may very well contribute to this world’s damnation.

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