“Adrenaline” by Priya Chand
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The air roared. Analysis revealed this was due to a pressure differential caused by the cooling effects of the nearby water. This phenomenon was called ‘wind.’
I had never been so close to the lake before. I didn’t know if I liked it yet.
“Come on, Sanford.”
I was wasting microseconds outside – and not only to gather data. Maybe it wasn’t too late to abandon this ridiculous deal. No shame in one loss, right? And she didn’t play by any rules I ever learned, which was almost cheating.
Problem: almost. Not an option. I’d have to give her the point or take the forfeit.
Before I could think of the 47th reason to ruin my perfect record, Iren yanked me inside.
We were late – fashionably late, she’d insisted – and the floor was crowded. I let her pull me past a pileup on the dance floor. They were gyrating to something low and heavy, the kind of thing Instructor Marin called ‘primitive,’ a word she said with almost as much disdain as ‘organic.’ She said we should strive for mathematical elegance. She was my experience advisor. I listened to her.
But there was something appealing about the irregularity. It was like the wind, enjoyable because it was an aberration.
Instructor Marin would understand this, I thought. I could go back now with my observations – and a loss to a random stranger on my record. Which would damage my self-actualization.
Iren said the forfeit was coming to her ‘weekend sporting event,’ which I’m sure any functional being would define as an opportunity for training and data exchange.
This – I checked images and definitions from the Repository – was a rave.
“Hang on,” I said. “This isn’t what you promised.”
“Look, you see the track around the room?”
Strobe lights and meandering drunks ruined the visuals. Or, at least, what the light showed. I extended my sensors.
Echolocation is tricky in a room of thumping feet and powerful bass, but I have the best algorithms in town. Head Placer Koss said I’d be Council someday. All I had to do was not screw up. Not where anyone would see me, anyway.
This warehouse was 3.5 miles south of the College. It was a squat windowless building, probably still around for historical interest. It wasn’t being used for anything else – maybe a place to cover the scent of spiked oil. Everyone reeked of it. I was probably the only one in here who cared about the past. I bet these dancers, drinking themselves to new idiotic lows, thought humans were mythical.
Iren tapped her toes. 96.72% likelihood of impatience. For some reason the gesture was more common in androids who identified as female.
I sent a second ultrasonic click. This time I heard distortions that could only be the track, a long oval raised 0.3 centimeters above the floor. But then I caught something else: a group huddled in a corner, shaking and twitching and jerking. ‘Sim users. Junkies.
“What is this, Iren? There are simheads here.”
The Repository was unable to assist with interpreting her response – an odd, low snort. “Sanford, get over yourself. I beat you fair and square. Now shut up and learn.”
“You didn’t say I had to enjoy this.”
“Fine,” Iren said. “But you wanna learn how I won or not?” She yanked a clear bottle out of her private compartment. The nanites were sloshing around inside, excited by the motion.
I looked at her face, which kept flashing green, pink, ultramarine in the lighting. I’d found out – from her elbow to my neck – that she was a very tough alloy under her silicone skin. I could see the dark metal outlined under the thin rubbery peach when her joints bent. There was no way to tell if she was factory original or upgraded, and I didn’t know her well enough to ask.
I was carbon nanotubing, buckminsterfullerene, and I had gold plating under neosilicone. I’d earn full marks for my experience-building project and then join the Council. 50.2 years later, there would be a noticeable decay in my neural processing and I’d have myself decommissioned and recycled. Not a bad life. I could see every day of it.
“Iren, what will you be doing tomorrow?”
She shrugged. “No idea. C’mon, you’re wasting time. I told these guys to wait for us, you know.” The guys were wandering on and off the dance floor when they weren’t rolling around tripping on ‘sims.
She laid out a line of nanites, shaking the tube out on a corroded concrete window ledge. I wondered where, when, why the windows had gone.
As the bass shifted into a complex polyrhythmic structure, I did my first humanism sim. No one ever discussed them in class, but we heard stories. How users became crazy and unpredictable, too inefficient to participate in society.
And as the virus reconfigured my algorithms, I stopped deconstructing the music. An entire forgotten layer of programming hit alpha priority. I screamed. I wanted everyone to feel this happy.
Iren laughed. “About time! Now get your wheels out.” She yelled something at the DJ as I twisted my feet into second position. For some reason it was harder than usual. The slots slid away from my grappling fingers like some mystical frictionless thing.
One final yank and I was ready. I joined the swirl and found myself in a group smeared with ultraviolet blue paint. It left streaks of light in my vision when I turned my head sideways. This was fun, but I wanted to do things already. Except we were on the same team and I wasn’t supposed to hit them so I ground my wheels into the floor, scoring rough grooves in the ancient surface. “Come on come on come on,” I kept saying. Aberrant, but my body itched.
Someone fired a shot and the sky exploded and I counted 200,137 shining flecks in the sudden brightness and the guys in front of me got moving. Go time.
I slammed some glowing green with my elbow. Skidded a deep groove into the outer right edge because I didn’t see the wall until the last nanosecond. A kid tried to knock me down but I swung aside and watched him go flying. I saw a long streak of neon as the air crackled and then I had to focus focus focus.
My skin tingled like it was overclocked. I caught little things like a chip missing from Iren’s nose and the sparkling flecks caught in the paint on her thorax, but I didn’t see one of our big Blues trip until she went flying over my head. I flinched at the last second – an abortive attempt to crouch. I didn’t want to get out of the way. I wanted to hit everyone.
My rollerblade scythed the arm off a random idiot. I drew closer to Iren.
“What’s this stuff called?” Fuck messaging. I yelled it into her ear.
“Adrenaline,” she yelled back.
“I need more.” My sensors were returning to normal, the higher algorithms overriding the urge to destroy, the… why not, primitive behaviors. Uninfected me would know this was a terrible idea. Self-preservation dictated I renew the virus before I could refuse it. But the high was already ragged. Too late.
I wanted to hide in a corner, or better yet back in my dormitory. Iren caught the adjustments as I tried to run away and pulled me out of the ring, roaring as we skated over the back of a collapsed Green. Someone cursed at us. She told them to fuck off. She laughed, a hoarse repetitive noise that echoed unpleasantly. Was that what I’d sounded like, riding the adrenaline? Was this what adrenaline had done to people?
Human behavior was a valid, if obscure, area of study. I could justify the ‘adrenaline high’ to my advisors if I stopped now. A single event had provided sufficient data for days of study.
Before I could tell Iren I was done, she shoved my face into a new line of nanites. I sucked them in, surprised. I didn’t see her take them out.
“Damn, you must have fancy processing,” she said. “Normally takes hours for the innate algorithms to wipe out this virus.”
“I do,” I meant to say, and maybe even add something about how she could go fuck herself and this whole simhead scene when the adrenaline reentered my system and I was in heaven part two.
Adrenaline. Sometimes it makes people do crazy things.
I kicked my feet against the wall at a very precise angle and landed on someone’s oversized back. Did I know I was going to do that? Whatever.
From here everything was beautiful and I took a whole second to wander in the streaks of color under the blacklighting and the metal bodies gleaming as they spun in orbit, sometimes crushed but no less magnificent. I saw the Green leader lose her leg as she got slammed with a crowbar. I thought I’d stay here and enjoy the view until one of my background processes highlighted a Blue on the outside edge.
The strike pattern, data suggested, was what the CPD used.
I launched myself off the android I was riding, floating chips of glitter scratching the paint off my face, and took the cop down with my knees right in the sweet spot, the small of his back. I’d learned to spread the angry algorithms out, so half of me thrilled in scraping his face against the floor and the other half was tense, ready to act in case the situation changed.
One android glided over to me. He left a moaning pile of rust and stray body parts in his wake. “You on delusions or something?”
“This fucker’s a narc,” I said. Winched the narc’s pelvis so he couldn’t kick me.
“Oh yeah?” The blue paint couldn’t hide the contempt on his face. I realized he was our frontman. I wanted to snarl my rage – who let that idiot lead, anyway? –but instead I twisted the narc’s arm up. He whimpered into the concrete, which pissed me off so much I yanked his arm out of the socket to the screech of tearing metal. The noise was too high pitched to be pleasant. I loved it.
My body hurt. I needed to hurt more, more. I ran my fingers over the putty on his arm. It fell to the ground in tiny scraps.
“See!” I screamed. Held it up for everyone to see, the badge engraved into his arm. I could make out every minute detail, the flourish on the G in CHICAGO and the eagle, a holdover from times when the Earth was organic. I wanted to keep it as a souvenir.
Someone screamed, “Kill the fucker!”
The advice sounded good and he kept making these horrible incoherent noises. I let his arm clang down, relishing the way it tinkled like music to the beat of kill, kill, kill and then something happened and I was sitting with the head of a police officer in my hands.
The body was twitching weak electromagnetic twitches. The loose wires on the neck threw off sparks until the current decayed. He looked like a busted carnival toy. We had a few of them in Early Development, good practice for basic maintenance. This one was way past that. They don’t teach you how to reanimate unless your Phase III specialization is in Recycling.
I stared at the body. It was still now. Somehow it looked huge, a monster casting a shadow over the future I’d imagined every day, every hour since my tenth cycle began.
I wasn’t going back to college and I would never be on the Council. They would allow me my brief foray into humanisms, but even a weak organic brain wouldn’t forgive murder.
And I didn’t want this to be a brief foray. With the adrenaline flowing through me, thousands of nanites damping the higher processes that made me so self-aware I’d planned my whole damn life out, I couldn’t decide whether the guys around me would tear me apart or carry me on their shoulders like a hero.
It was amazing.
Before I could let them have me, Iren hauled me out the door. They were calling for me. I thought they wanted to give me a parade, but I let her take charge. I wondered how much adrenaline I needed to make Iren stop bossing me around.
Not that it was entirely bad.
“You are one crazy fuck,” she whispered. The modulations in her pitch indicated either deep admiration or deep distrust. I tried to calculate the best possible response to her, but some stray part of the virus was screwing with my social algorithms.
Behind us, I heard them say they’d tear the narc to shreds. The body. Then there was thumping, way stronger than the bass. And screeching, the kind of screeching I heard in the junkyards I passed on my way to experience-building. But there was something else, too. An extra dimension of… primitive. Maybe it wasn’t primitive like a real organic, but it was the closest to organics we’d ever get. Ululations, something happy but also terrifying, the kind of thing you wanted to be part of but not witness to.
Our human behavior classes had not begun to grasp this.
I wondered what the point of education was, if this inadequacy went past Ancient History. Did the Politics seminar truly convey the complexity and depth of Council decisions? I had laid out predictions for the next two hundred years based on what I learned in school. Now, I realized, it was worthless.
And, worse, it was boring.
I finally understood what studying human behavior was about. It was about hiding the appeal of being so crazy you could fuck up your own atmosphere. They’d left centuries ago when it evaporated, but we could remember them in humanisms – if we weren’t scared of what they taught us. The videos they played over and over again, with explosions and mass murder. The stampedes to their lifeship, with a solemn voice-over showing us how it was ‘every man for himself.’
This behavior wasn’t some side effect of poor modulation, it was the way humans were. To do anything else – to be anything else – denied our own heritage. I wanted to be organic.
Iren and I were fifty meters past the warehouse and walking towards the lake, a peaceful black surface that glimmered with the lights of the superservers far beneath. They’d let the water stay – it was a cheap way to keep the network cool. I realized it was aesthetically pleasing, too. The reflections weren’t just from the servers, either. Cold points of light, the stars like beacons piercing the blackness above. The humans were somewhere out there. Without an atmosphere, the ship had been visible for decades. We knew they weren’t a fiction, but we couldn’t chase after them. We were too heavy.
We didn’t have to be too rational.
I still held the policeman’s head. It was lighter than I would have expected. The eyes looked just the way they did when he was plugged in, dull metal spheres. They lolled in different directions. The sight disgusted me; it was like seeing something badly manufactured.
I decided I’d throw it into the water and hope it smashed some of the educational programming – that was what Chicago’s superservers held, our learning – loose. The wind blew out from the land, now, so I adjusted my calculations and twisted my arm into place.
But first, I got Iren to give me another hit of adrenaline.
About the Author
Priya Chand went to the University of Chicago for neuroscience because brains are the most pokeable of organs. She later discovered that poking them with words is more fun. Find her at writelies.wordpress.com.
Read our interview with Priya Chand