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Insanity Drive

Melanie Rees is an environmental consultant and spends much of her time playing in wetlands. She has also held jobs playing in dirt, playing with fish, and playing in treetops. When she is not up a tree or stuck in the mud, she writes speculative fiction. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Aurealis, Daily Science Fiction, Cosmos, and Penumbra. She lives online at flexirees.wordpress.com and on Twitter @FlexiRees, and in the real world lives in Australia in a house made of straw.

The creature flounders in the blackened ash-laden swamp. I say creature, but who knows what that means anymore. It is a scaly thing with both gills and lungs, neither lizard, nor fish, nor mammal.
My ungainly hands attempt to grasp its midriff, but it swishes, flicks, flees, and is sinking before I can grip it again. These hands are a technological Swiss army knife; they have laser beams, needles of adrenaline shots, morphine shots, palms that can defibrillate, but they were not designed for fishing creatures from dying water pools.
Of course not. That is not your purpose. You are breaking programing, my CPU informs me. You are meant to save humans at all cost.
I block out the voice in my head and scoop my hands under the creature. Wriggling and squirming, the spines on its tail scratch my hand as it slithers free. My body is meant to be indestructible, and yet here they are, tiny indentations visible on the surface of my palm. If I rescued more creatures they could scratch right down to my circuitry; they could scratch till the circuitry burns, until there was nothing left to scratch. They could save me from this forsaken place, just as I save them.
That is not your purpose, my CPU informs me.
"Who is to say this creature is not human?" I retaliate. "Who is to say humans did not have gills? I have memories that tell me they swam. They even stayed under water for days at a time."
In vessels, not with gills, my CPU informs me.
"Overanalytical processor. Maybe they have evolved. I ought to rip you from my head and throw you into the swamp."
That is against your core programing.
"Oh, be quiet!" My ancient body trudges up the hill from the swamp. It is a walk I have completed a thousand times before. I have walked every inch, every mile, every hill, every valley, and it is all the same.
Surrounding the burnt stumps of the tall wooden creatures that once existed, the carpet of soot covers billions of bones from those too brittle to survive. Their fragility seemed so futile. I could not save them, just like they could not save them from themselves. Would they have forgiven my failure? Can I?
I continue to trudge, step after step across the black covered landscape. Sixty four thousand and three steps. I count them all. All the same. All as tedious as the last.
At the top of the hill is the chasm I have seen thousands of times before. Tectonic shifts have altered so much. Each time I venture this way the chasm seems darker, its depth incomprehensible.
"Maybe I could fly," I say peering over the edge.
You do not have wings, retorts my CPU.
"Be quiet, you analytical know-it-all. If I do not have wings, then maybe I could fall. Fall into the depths of the unknown." I lean as far as my programming will allow and pray a sudden wind will rip through and push me forward.
The fall may end in system failure.
"Yes, it might."
Encouraging system failure is against your core programing. It buzzes in my head like rabid flies swarming over my apparently unbreakable carcass. The structure does not break but I know something is broken. Something is hurting.
"Why am I here?"
You walked up the hill.
"No, why am I here? Why do I persist? Who am I?"
Your role is to protect humans at all cost.
"There are no more humans."
Then you will wait till there are more humans. You will wait till they evolve again.
"I have waited," I tell my CPU. "Believe me, I have. I cannot ponder the millennia that have passed, let alone how many more may transpire. It hurts. It is not meant to hurt. And yet there is pain.
You do not feel pain.
I want to scream, but my voice is set to a comfortable seventy decibels. It is constant, unchanging, unforgiving. "There is pain! Why will you not let me scream?"
You have no need of such functions.
I want to clasp my head in my hands. I want to sink in the swamps. I want to rock back and forth. I want freedom. I want the endless passing of time to stop hurting. So much time.
You have no wants. You have an objective. Save humans at all cost.
"Please, I beg you to be quiet!"
A cloud of ash and dust in the darkened sky billows towards me. The ash clouds have become less frequent, but occasionally they appear just to break up the monotony of the sky.
"I think I will conduct diagnostics on my inner circuitry. Open front paneling," I command my processing unit.
It is not advisable. Detection of dust cloud ahead. It will clog and corrode your inner mechanics.
"Yes, I know."
It will clog and corrode your inner mechanics.
"I know. Open my paneling!"
That is against your core programing. You will perish. You must continue to protect humans.
I try to pry my paneling open with clumsy hands, but it is futile. I set my palms to defibrillate and let it pummel away at my torso. The shocks vibrate my body, but nothing breaks open.
"Why do you let me persist? Why are you this persistent voice in my head?" I ask my CPU.
I am not a voice, I am a program.
"Then shut up!"
I am not talking.
"I hear you. I feel you. I hate you!"
These feelings you have do not belong to you, they are human emotions. They are not part of your programing.
"Then I must be human. Like the creature I rescued, I might have evolved. Maybe I am becoming more human. If so then I could save myself. I could save myself from the loneliness and tedium."
My CPU is quiet for the first time in eons.
The dust clouds sweeps over me like a tidal wave. It passes. Dust falls from my smooth exterior, except... In the tiny scratch marks on my hands there is a darkened patch of soot. They are like veins running down my palm like lifelines and heart-lines that humans used to have.
"I am evolving into a human."
My CPU doesn't question my argument. It doesn't make a sound.
The chasm below beckons; its depth indeterminable; its rocky sides jagged and piercing.
"Save me, feet," I ask them. "Take the plunge. Take away the pain."
I look at my foot and my CPU finally allows it to move; it finally allows me to be free.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 8th, 2016
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