The Sentient Advantage - Chapter 1


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Jaros opened his eyes; he was falling, his hands grabbed wildly but nothing was in reach. Adrenaline surged through him as he realized death would be instant, but after several seconds elapsed it became clear he was not dead, but incredibly, was still falling. Twisting to look down his eyes eventually focused on lights far below.

“Oh great,” he said to himself. “I won’t be dead for another minute or two at least.”

He started looking for a rip cord, but couldn’t find anything that was obviously right. He was wearing a suit of some kind, complete with helmet and visor, almost like a space suit. There was no cord.

He wondered briefly how he had gotten himself into this rather awkward situation. He cast his mind back, and hit nothing. A blank. A chill ran down his spine. He was about to die and he didn’t know why.

The lights were getting brighter. He didn’t have long now. His mind was racing. Surely there was something that he should do before the end, some great insight. He wished briefly that he had a pen and paper handy in case he did think of something profound. It would be such a pity to die without being able to write it down first.

Then a thought struck him. “Maybe I’m dreaming.” He clung to it as it seemed to offer the best chance of survival. Reaching down with his fingers he tried to pinch his leg. But the suit he was wearing prevented him. “I bet that’s just the bedclothes, and my arm is outside the bed.” He waved his arm around madly trying to get it inside his invisible bed, but to no avail.

Suddenly he was hit by something. His whole body jerked like a rag doll, swinging madly for a second before the world stabilized again. Looking up he saw the parachute dimly in the dark sky above, and experienced an almost overwhelming sense of relief and joy.

“Well that was a good idea,” he said to no one in particular. He was still grinning stupidly to himself feeling smug for no real reason at all when he remembered that the ground was still coming towards him at what could be a fairly painful speed. Since it was dark the chances of a soft controlled landing seemed slim, particularly since he had no memory of being trained in how to land a parachute.

Looking down again he tried to make out what was below. He could see patches of lights, lines and squares, and darker areas with no real form, possibly fields. He felt it would probably be wise to try to land in one of the darker areas. He reached up to try and grab some kind of steering cords, but found nothing. Then, with some alarm, he noticed a metallic device some six feet above him at the point where the parachute lines joined.

“What on earth is that?” he wondered out loud. The thing was making buzzing sounds and he could see the cords moving in and out of it. At the same time he could feel himself swaying left and right.

The dark patches he’d been hoping to steer for were now expanding rapidly and he could see he was heading for one of them. But now his eyes picked out something else. Little lines of white appearing, and then disappearing. He was mesmerized for what seemed like minutes as the patterns moved, vanished and reformed. Then the cold reality suddenly struck him. Waves!

Feeling sick this time as more adrenaline fed his already overly active imagination, he considered the chances of surviving once he hit the water. Assuming he could swim at all, and even that basic fact escaped him.

For the last few seconds he just stared at the water rushing towards him. “Oh crap,” he thought. This was going to be painful, cold and fatal. A most unhappy combination.

Suddenly he hit the water. The blackness swallowed him instantly. Cold and terrified he held his breath, waiting for the end. He was not prepared to open his mouth and let the water choke him until he had to. He held his breath as the painful cold started to seep through whatever he was wearing. Then his feet hit something. He kicked off it madly without even thinking, his lungs bursting; he must be meters under the water, but maybe he could make it to the surface.

His feet touched bottom again. His suit must be made of lead. Finally he couldn’t wait any longer and he sucked in madly hoping to die in seconds and avoid prolonging the torture any longer. With some surprise he found he was still breathing air.

“You really should get moving,” said a voice in his ear.

Jaros practically screamed in surprise, “Who said that?”

“The beach is about two hundred meters to your right. It should only take a few minutes if you start now. There isn’t much air in this suit so it would probably be a good idea to get a move along.”

“Hello, can you hear me. What’s going on? Are you receiving?”

Jaros waited for a response, but nothing, just silence now. He considered whether he should simply sit and wait for the voice to say something else, but the cold and the fear of death or disorientation prevented him. He turned carefully to his right, moving slowly in the water. He started partly walking, partly swimming and partly jumping in the direction he thought the voice had meant. After a few steps he felt he could discern a slight upward slope which gave him some feeling of confidence.

Finally he felt his helmet break the surface. He pushed forward excitedly, trying to get further out, until he felt the water level suddenly dropping around him. His pleasure was replaced with undiluted fear as the sound of something like a freight train thundered behind him. Turning, now waist-deep in water, he saw the eight-foot-tall wave for just a fraction of a second before he was hit and found himself tumbling in the water.

When the churning stopped he found ground underneath and stood. Then started running as fast as he could. He didn’t fancy being hit again. With great relief he stumbled out of the surf onto wet sand and made himself keep moving until he was standing well clear of the high water mark.

Fumbling with his suit, he wanted to breathe real air and although he didn’t know what he was doing his fingers seemed to know how to release the helmet. A cold wind blew over his face as the helmet fell to the ground. He undid the fastenings and stripped his wet outer garment off. Shivering, he headed inland towards the lights in the distance.

After an hour or so he came to a small road. It was empty but he decided to follow it anyway. He trudged along unhappily, his arms wrapped around himself trying to keep some warmth in.

Startled, he turned to find a car had pulled up beside him and opened its passenger door. The word “TAXI” appeared in glowing letters on its roof. “Darned electric motors!” he thought. “Can’t hear them coming.”

“Excuse me sir, would you be Jaros?”

Jaros stared at the car for a second before quickly stepping in simply to get warm. “Yes,” he said.

“Sorry I’m late picking you up, I do hope you haven’t been waiting long. I’ve been going up and down this road for some time now trying to find you, I’m really not programmed to cope with a pickup point like this you know. I do wish you’d told me a specific location, I really would recommend it in future.”

Jaros sat in the back of the taxi still shivering, and not really listening to the computerized tin can. “Can you turn up the heating and close the door?”

“Yes, certainly, sir. And the clothes you requested are in that bag.”

Jaros stared at the speaker grill, then opened the bag and stared at the clothing and the towel, which he quickly made use of before changing.

His mind eventually caught up with something it had been processing. “Who did you say ordered you?”

“Why, you did, sir. Two and a half hours ago.”

Jaros was extremely cross. He had been starting to fantasize about some kind of revenge but now it seemed any such pleasure would be self-inflicted and possibly not entirely satisfying.

“Did I happen to mention where I wanted to go?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes, of course, sir.” The cab’s AI was not overly intelligent so failed to recognize the strangeness of the question.

“Oh good. Off we go then.”

“Very well, sir,” responded the taxi, speeding off down the road.

Jaros sat in the back warming up rapidly and feeling quite good about being alive and relatively safe. However he was also exhausted, and some time later he drifted off to sleep.

A buzzing sound intruded on his dream. The girl vanished as he opened his eyes. The insistent buzzing sound was almost echoing inside the small cab.

“Please excuse me sir, I hate to use such harsh sounds but I have a call for you and I thought it might be urgent. Shall I activate the vidscreen?”

“Yes. Go ahead.”

Jaros jumped, hitting his head on the roof, when the picture appeared. Looking back at him was the girl from his dream; her intent blue eyes made his heart race and she flashed him a dazzling smile.

“Hi, I’m returning your call, I do hope it’s not a bad time,” she said.

Jaros stared blankly for a moment before regaining his wits. “Thanks.”

“So?” she asked.

“Oh, I called you, did I?” By this time Jaros wasn’t even slightly surprised at the response.

“Yes. Was it about the room?” she asked.

Jaros hesitated. room? room? what room? He was unsure of how to respond.

She prompted him, “You must have seen my advert; you know, the room with a ghost. Are you interested? Would you like to see it?”

“I believe I would,” Jaros smiled to himself. Well, he was almost certain he did, or someone wanted him to.

“How does eleven o’clock sound? The address is 24 Nordale Avenue. Sunny View. It is the blue house on the left after the big yellow transit station. Do you know the area?”

“Yes... Well, no... But the car will find it.”

“Yes, it shouldn’t have any trouble! See you soon then.”

The screen went blank. Jaros noticed it was now daylight outside. He turned to the cab’s console, “Let me guess. We are already heading to Sunny View?”

“Yes, sir, of course. We will be there shortly.”

Jaros had a nagging feeling that he didn’t have control over his life. He wondered briefly if this was his normal state.

Kayla turned away as the vidcom went blank. She hoped her emotions hadn’t shown. She had long since given up being surprised at odd things. After all, when you have a ghost, you get used to the unusual. but was it normal to feel your heart race and face flush at the first sight of a complete stranger? Sure, he was nice to look at, maybe even handsome.... She had to shake herself to start thinking again; her mind had stalled while calling up his image. What was wrong with her?

She found herself thinking of her brother Mark. he hadn’t stopped by for a few days. His duties at the space academy left him with little spare time. It was his fault she had to rent out the room. For the first week or two after he left she had been ok, but then she started getting strange feelings late at night as if someone was watching her. The house was too big to be alone in at night.

That was it! The guy on the vidcom looked a little like her brother Mark. Kayla felt better having found a rational explanation for her reaction.

She started tidying up the house in a slightly nervous fashion and tried not to analyze any further. Alfred interrupted long before she was satisfied.

“Miss, there appears to be a young man approaching the house.”

“Thanks Alfred. I’ll answer it.”

“I’m afraid I’ve already let him in, miss; you’ll find him waiting in the lounge.”

Kayla was stunned. Alfred had always been a rather unusual house comp, but letting complete strangers into the house was a new twist.

“Hi,” said Kayla as she entered the lounge. “Alfred seems to have taken a liking to you. He won’t let most of my friends in unless I stand with my foot jamming the door open.”

Jaros grinned. “How strange. I’m Jaros. I rang earlier.” his voice was low.

The same strange feeling hit her again as Jaros turned from the old fire place and smiled back at her. Only the feeling was stronger now, much stronger, and she still didn’t know what to make of it. He was tall and athletic with sandy hair and the most incredible green eyes. She’d seen good-looking guys before but she detected an unusual quality about him. “Do you want to have a look round?” she said at last, pulling her gaze away from his.

“Yes. That would be good.”

Kayla led him back through the hall into the first bedroom. She was feeling extremely self-conscious. “This is my room,” she said, moving past it quickly so that he didn’t see too much of the mess. “and this is the room that’s available. I can move the bed and stuff if you have your own furniture.”

“No, it’s fine as it is. I haven’t got much, anyway.”

Kayla led him into the kitchen, “The place is a bit old, as you can see, but it’s not bad for its age. My parents left it to Mark and me; he’s my younger brother.”

“What do you do for a living?” asked Jaros.

“I’m a programmer, mostly.”

“I thought comps did that sort of stuff these days.”

“Cripes no! Not on anything important anyway. There’s no telling what those half-witted things would come up with. They don’t understand humans very well, and the tricky bit of writing a program is figuring out what the human client actually wants the program to do.”

Jaros nodded, “I think I’ve seen enough. When can you let me know if I can have the room?”

Kayla grinned; she had almost given up hope that anyone would answer the advert, let alone someone she actually liked. Three weeks of adverts with not a single response. She had been starting to suspect Alfred was blocking the calls. But every time she suggested giving up he had insisted she keep trying. Anyway, now her problems were over. “No one else has rung so the room is yours. When do you want to move in?”

Jaros considered his other options. “Umm, right now would be good.”

“Ok, great. I’ll be in all day, and I think Alfred will probably let you in whether I tell him to or not.”

A voice burst from the walls, “I would not dream of taking such liberties, miss.”

Kayla smiled dubiously, “Of course you wouldn’t. I was just joking. But now that I’m asking, you will let Jaros come and go freely?”

“But of course, miss.”

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