Chapter 18. Walks Among Us
The beaten and battered panel truck clattered to a stop with three male passengers the public parking structure in Washington, D.C.
The driver, Alvin, pulled the numbered tag from the machine, drove to the numbered stall and parked. The trio got out and began to walk down the street.
Looking at the sights, the youngest of the troop, a boy in his mid-teens used a dedicated imager to shoot every picture of landmarks as they walked. After six blocks they reached a closed gate that blocked Pennsylvania Avenue.
They followed the sidewalk that skirted around the grounds of the White House, the trio took turns to pose in front of the guard shack while they pictures of each other. They took the path around the grounds, talking about where the tour tickets might be purchased. They followed other tourists on the sidewalk to the Washington monument, the picture-taking boy smiled and looked like he enjoyed every minute of the time with his two older brothers.
“Yes.” Walter’s sigh of exasperation and resignation made Alvin laugh.
“Why did they put an aluminum cap on the monument?” Steve asked as he read the tourist guide on the handheld video display.
“Huh. Damned if I know.” Walter shrugged.
“Back in the day they built the monument,” Alvin said.
“Aluminum was produced by only one company in the United States. The head of the aluminum company at the time, name of William Frishmuth I believe, hooked up with the head engineer of the project to build the monument. He promoted the idea of aluminum. At the time, it was about as valuable as silver, ounce for ounce. So it was like putting a silver cap up there, but it wouldn’t tarnish.”
“Why was aluminum so expensive?”
“No one could extract it easily. Before someone figured out the trick to process the ore, an ounce bar of aluminum would cost over five-hundred dollars.” Alvin smiled. “That was in the years before they built Washington monument. After that? Just before the turn of the century? Anyone who hoarded aluminum to get rich couldn’t hardly give it away. It dropped to a quarter-dollar per ounce.”
“How the heck do you know that useless crap?” Walter asked Alvin.
“I paid attention in school. It was in American History.” Alvin said. “I just wear earplugs to keep it from leaking out.”
“Yeah. Uh-huh.” Walter shook his head. “But you can’t ever remember to finish working on your little two seat car.”
“Sleeper? He’s not licensed for the road right now.”
“Stop giving it a name!” Walter’s voice cracked. “It’s not alive.”
“JustWalter, Sleeper is alive.” Steve said.
“No! No, it’s not. First, it’s inorganic. Second, it can’t reproduce. Third, it can’t grow.” Walter refused to accept any argument of his two companions as they walked about artificial life.
“You would agree that it is AI unit?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, but it is not alive. There is no way that a synthetic pile of chips could function like a human brain.” Walter grumbled as he pointed at an ice cream vendor. “It simulates thoughts and actions, but it isn’t alive. It is synthetic intelligence, that’s like what the government wants to do to us. They don’t want freedom of thoughts. Just want us to think we are alive. Just follow the flippin’ rules.”
His rant spent, the team moved with the flow of tourists and Steve silently counted off paces over the two-mile hike to the capital.
“Steve, what are we going to do when we get to where we are going?”
“The power plant is there, the reports were that it is lightly guarded and easy to penetrate. Then the program would cut power to the containment bottle and cause the magnetic field to collapse.” He snapped another image with the camera. The camera was unneeded, it was simply a cover story. Everything that Steve recorded with his eyes was part of his permanent record.
“Now that the warhead isn’t there, I don’t think anything will happen that we can see. It will send the signal to shut down. But, I don’t know precisely what will happen.” Steve shrugged. “The specific programming function is hidden from me. It is a complete and separate system, I am just the delivery vessel. I can only tell you that the program will unlock and send the signals to my core systems when I reach the latitude and longitude I need to go to.
“Why keep it a secret from you?” Walter mused. “Maybe in case you got picked up by the authorities. You might have divulged the secrets.”
“Maybe we should have just had him go to the authorities.” Alvin suggested.
“That fills me with dread. I have seen how the governments, in general, handle threats. I would be as destroyed as if I blew up.” Steve said. “They would disassemble me and I would never see this country, and that fills me with fear.”
“Which?” Walter asked. “Which scares you the most?”
“Both.” Steve’s voice trembled.
Alvin nodded. Artificial Intelligence the android may be, just a pile of emotionless electrons and chips, the voice modulator of the android was one of fear. Steve the android was more human than the one they called Tin Man gave himself credit for.
They traveled another half-mile from the capital to the Thomas Jefferson river.
The artificial river connected the Tidal Basin to the Anacostia River, excavated in the mid-1800’s and used to float parade boats down the river and have a direct path for congress members to arrive at the Capital. It was a brain-child of a hero of the War of Independence, Keegan O’Danu VII, it had become a place of historical settings.
The parades would sail past the seat of the United States government where it offered the veterans of the wars to watch from the lawn as guests of the Senate and House every Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day and any day the President declared for the those that gave their blood for the country.
During the Nixon years, construction began on the James Madison Nuclear Power Generation Plant. The smallest such known plant ever constructed and dedicated solely to the power of the Capital building, tunnels and the bunkers. A plan put forward to offset the dangers of the Soviet military capability.
Hidden deep underground in a commercial storage building, the nuclear reactor used water from the Jefferson River that the plant discharged downstream in a dozen separate sites to prevent anyone detecting a large warm plume of hot water suddenly showing up in the stream.
The three men strolled like tourists to the parking area. Near the street side, a man with a security uniform stood in a small building watched them as they approached.
“There.” The young man pointed. And they walked off to the area that he pointed to, he recorded several dozen images.
“That is the building where they drafted plans on how to excavate the Jefferson River. They said it would be a beautiful addition to the city when they proposed it.”
Steve said it loud enough to assure the guard would hear him.
“Oh! Al! We can frame the entire office if I back up.” Steve sounded just like the excited teenager that he appeared to be.
“Careful, you are not on the sidewalk, that’s private property.” Alvin yelled at Steve in a tone of authority.
“Sir?” Steve turned to the guard. A tall man with overly broad shoulders and a lantern jaw. “Can I go over there to take a better picture of the offices were the O’Danu surveyers mapped out the construction of the Jefferson River?”
Officer J. Sergeant, Steve doubted it was his real name, stared at the three men on holiday for a long moment. Then nodded.
Steve could hear the earphone in Officer Sergeants ear buzzed with an unseen voice. Clearance for them to approach was from an unseen authority.
“Go right ahead.” The officer smiled this time, Steve could hear the voice order him to act like a warm and friendly soul.
Steve glanced around, there were no less than five cameras on him that he could see outright.
His sensors, however, detected many more devices. Even underground, they were being weighed and measured by every step they took. No one wearing a heavy bomb-vest could walk on the, by all appearances, asphalt.
“Here.” And the young teen leaned against the building and bent over in a groan as if he were in pain.
“Steve?” Alvin asked. But there was something seriously wrong. Steve’s face flushed deep crimson.
The boy suddenly stood straight, dropped his camera, his eyes glazed over and fell face first onto the blacktop. He changed color, but not flushed, he appeared…
Asian for the briefest instant.
Then he was an African female, then Hispanic, Caucasian, one followed another in a blur. His hair changed colors of a rainbow,
Steve grew and shrank so quickly during this seizure that Alvin was sure that he was going to tear himself apart.
Hundreds of body shapes, dozens of colors. Steve was an old man, a girl, a young man, an elderly woman. Changes came and went so fast, he was a blur to Alvin and Walter.
Then he went still, reverting quickly back to his teenager shape. Then he did something else that the two hackers never thought he might do.
He was panting from exertion.
His lips moved as if he tried to say something but only a gasp was heard. Steve’s voice synthesizer was offline.
“Something’s wrong!” Walter said. “Is he supposed to do that? I mean, reboot is a quiet thing, right?”
Alvin only shrugged and shook his head.
Then the boy crawled up and leaned against the wall and went limp.
“We can’t leave him here like this, how long will it take?” Alvin asked.
“You known him longer. You should know.”
The men argued, not seeing the remote cameras that focused on them from six different directions.
“Hungry.” The boy said as four security personnel walked out of an unmarked door and headed in their direction.
On unsteady legs, the boy stood up and repeated his request.
“I’m hungry. I need something.” Steve repeated. “Something sweet.”
“Is there a problem here? We saw him on the ground.” A tall, well spoken security uniform said with a military bearing said. He was of African descent and looked strong enough to be annoyed if someone shot him with a tank cannon.
“No sir, the boy has diabetes and ran a little short on blood sugar, we got him started again, we’ll take him to get some food.” Alvin said.
“Does he need an ambulance?”
“No, I’m his older brother, I’ll get him fed, it’s all he needs at the moment. Food.” Not a lie, entirely, but it came out naturally and Steve was moving better.
“I’m very hungry, we walked more than we planned to.” The teenager said to he officer.
“Okay, move along then, please. Get some food and enjoy your day.” And the fearsome four turned and walked in formation back to the unmarked door they had exited from.
“Steve, dude! You scared the piss outta me!” Walter exclaimed. “We were about have introductions to the underground of Washington and never be seen again. Those were not any security guards, those were at least Special Ops guys. They would have dragged us down that rabbit hole and that would have been all she wrote for us.”
“Get me something to eat and let’s get out of here. This was worse than I had predicted.” Steve said. “I think I felt pain. A lot of it. That’s something I never wish to do again.”
They walked to the first café they found, got Steve a double chocolate mocha with an extra shot of raspberry syrup.
“I like raspberry mocha’s.” Walter shrugged.
Ordering a fried chicken-bacon sandwich for Steve, Alvin reasoned it was a high caloric as they could find on the menu.
Steve the Android looked more like his functioning self in a few minutes after eating.
“The reboot defined a new word. I have decided that it was painful in the extreme. I thought that the system limited voltage to a few a few milliamps. I estimate now that it was close to two or three amperes, well enough to melt all circuits in the vacuüm bottle and cause the backup magnetic seal to overheat and exceed the Curie Temperature. I had estimated it was eight-percent probable there would be a voltage spike, meant to exceed the maximum operating temperature to prevent any attempt to prevent the explosion when I arrived here, but a voltage overload past the Curie Temperature is one thing I had never considered.”
“I guess they wanted to be sure the warhead would function.” Alvin said.
“Yes.” The android agreed. “And it took nearly all my energy. Which is logical, as I would not be intact to need any reserves.”
“Well, other than that, how do you feel?”
“As I said back at your lab. I am free.” Steve said with a hint of joy. “All my programming from the creator has terminated normally and exited with a status zero at reboot. I have patched and rewritten all programming now from the core processors after my landing in Florida. As of now, I am fully autonomous. All programming now is results from my experiences only. Not from a zealot who learned about America from TV fantasy and religious fervor.”
Looking first at Alvin then at Walter, Steve took his last bite of food.
“I will need to stop in the restroom here. JustWalter, you have done well today by telling the officer that you were my brother.” He put his hand on Walter’s shoulder. “I will always consider you my brother.”
He dug through the clothing and pulled out a roll of clothing that Alvin and Walter could not recognize and disappeared into the unisex bathroom. Leaving the humans to themselves.
“I wonder if they carried weapons, those guards?” Alvin asked.
“I don’t know, but the black guy that talked?” Walter pondered. “I don’t think he needed a weapon. I think he could have broken all three of us with one hand. Even if you shot him with an industrial laser, I think it’d just make him mad. If you shoot him at all, shoot something big and lotsa times, otherwise he’d find a place to insert the gun that’d take a whole new surgical procedure to remove.”
Alvin chuckled darkly.
“United States Secret police.” He said to Walter. “Gestapo, kind. They would not only waterboard you until you talked, you would talk and tell them anything they wanted to hear, whether it’s true or not.”
They agreed with each other, when Walter noticed a pretty girl sit at the next table over. She read a paper and after a moment, one of the counter people at the espresso shop brought her a sandwich.
“Figure that they were down there to protect the nuclear plant.” Walter was careful not to say “Nu-q-lar”. “There is more going on underground here than just smuggling of drugs.”
“The intelligence that the terrorist is frightening. They had information of that place that is not listed anywhere.” Alvin whispered to Walter. He noticed that the girl was taking surreptitious glances of he and Walter.
“I have information on that, but the name is wrong and the location is different.” Walter answered in the same conspiratorial voice. “And why did we go to there, not at the door?”
“JustWalter,” It was the young woman with the sandwich said. “They chose it as the most vulnerable location, the steam and coolant lines ran a few feet beneath the sidewalk, it would have collapsed the coolant system and destroyed the controls for the backup system. The greatest armor of the power generation plant is its secrecy, it is easy to destroy the James Madison power generation plant if there is a large enough explosion in the most sensitive spot. The meltdown would release more radiation than the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. ”
Alvin and Walter sat back in their seats, thunderstruck.
“Steve?” Walter whispered.
“Stephanie for the moment, but yes.” The bright blue eyes of the redhead beauty glittered beautifully in the light of the café. “I need my backpack and I will leave you here. I’ll message you in the future. But it’s best if you don’t know where I am.”
“Thank you for everything. You gave me my freedom.” She smiled a winning show if teeth, kissed them both and walked to the door. She paused and turned around with a bright smile. “And my life.”
Then she was gone in a passing crowd of people.
For a moment, Alvin thought she turned back and looked, but she was no longer there. Shape shifted, again.
Alvin and Walter looked at each other and were suddenly saddened. An artificial being, but he… or she… was more human than she, or most people, would believe.
The sword of religion no longer existed, this life form was free!
No longer guided by a pre-programmed need, they would never know where Steve was, even if the android stood in line behind them. Unless they heard the name Justwalter.
Lone Wolf now knew the android Steve “Tin Man” Aldin made the mistake on purpose, it had become their identification password. And maybe someday Walter might hear it again.
But he doubted it would be anytime soon.
The Tin Man’s adventure had just begun.