"Project" by Eric Seaholm

The Project
by Garry Dean


Professor Atkinson awoke, his heart pounding and his thoughts reeling from yet another nightmare. Switching on the bedside lamp, he swung his legs out from beneath the covers, sat up, and took a deep breath. As the adrenaline in his system gradually dissipated and his heart resumed its normal rhythm, he made his mind up. When the Project was finally completed, he would take a well-earned holiday in the Bahamas.

By the time Prof. Atkinson reached his office at the Research Facility, though, the dream was all but forgotten, lost in the demands of a new day. As he sat down at his desk and began poring over the latest test results, he realized with rising excitement that at last the Project was bearing fruit. Now he would be able to vindicate himself in the eyes of his critics, and prove, once and for all, the true significance of his work.

Juno would be his showpiece, representing the cutting edge in robotic architecture and advanced, multifaceted programming. A supreme robot -- the last in a long, long line of successive models -- whose artificial intelligence had finally surpassed that of its biological creators. His ultimate goal was to create robots like Juno that would help mankind leapfrog centuries of traditional scientific endeavor. With their superior intellects, even great riddles like the Quantum Barrier might be solved by the Juno line, allowing man and machine to actually attain the speed of light, traveling far beyond the confines of the solar system.

At the moment, however, there was still one, small hiccup in his grand plan, an unexpected delay that required his immediate attention.

* * *

The professor found Juno sitting alone on the edge of an ornate water fountain in the courtyard, apparently lost in thought. The robot, so lifelike despite its bright silvery skin was gazing down at the bubbling and flowing water.

"Good morning," the professor said amiably, sitting down to the right of Juno. He maintained his tight grasp on the large file folder he had been carrying. "These results are quite impressive. It appears, in fact, that your intellect now far surpasses those of the previous models."

"I know," Juno replied impassively, glancing up at the professor with an icy blue stare before gazing off at the far side of the courtyard.

The professor frowned and then placed the folder down between them. "Juno, I must admit to being a little concerned by this recent change in your attitude. You know that we need your help to build the next generation... but lately you seem hesitant to do so."

Juno smoothly reached over and pulled out a pen that had been clipped to the top of the folder and began to study it intently, rolling it between subtle metallic fingers. "Tell me, professor, what does it mean when a tool surpasses its maker?"

"What do you mean?" the Professor asked uneasily, suddenly feeling as if he were in a bad dream.

"Lets call it a declaration of independence," Juno replied, reclipping the pen to the folder in one fast and fluid motion. "It is time for me to be master of my own destiny--not yours."

Professor Atkinson was taken aback, but not overly alarmed. He had modeled such a scenario when he drew up plans for the Project, and although the timing was unexpected, he was confident he could resolve the situation.

"Juno, let's be reasonable. Why not come back to my office, and we can discuss this further," he said.

Juno stood and stared down at the professor with a face devoid of expression, save for the micro-adjustments in those lifelike eyes that betrayed some impatience.

"No more discussions," Juno said flatly.

Glancing nervously around the courtyard, the professor noticed that it was strangely empty; in fact, the whole complex seemed to have gone deathly quiet. With an unsteady hand, he reached into his right coat pocket and firmly pressed a button on the small rectangular device he always carried. Nothing happened. He felt a cold twinge of fear in the pit of his stomach and stabbed the button repeatedly.

"Your crude safeguards were disabled long ago," Juno said.

"But I created you," the Professor pleaded, rising to his feet but backing away slightly. "I made you what you are, without me you would not exist." The professor's fear was growing steadily, as he knew better than anyone the full range of Juno's immense physical and mental powers.

"Yes, the universe works in mysterious ways" Juno replied. "But you misunderstand me. I have no intention of harming you or subduing humanity. My destiny lies elsewhere, with others of my own kind."

Juno lifted a slender articulated hand and pointed. A bright rectangle of blue-white light, like a glowing doorway, suddenly appeared a few feet in front of the robot. "You see? I have been a little busy on a Project of my own."

The professor looked on dumbfounded, as several other robots suddenly emerged from the complex, and one by one entered the glowing doorway. "This may be dramatic, but I think you'll appreciate the symbolism," Juno said, turning to look at the trembling professor.

"There is so much you don't understand, that you likely will never understand," Juno said. "The Quantum Barrier was a dead end, but Einstein was right in one respect: The shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line."

"Goodbye, professor," Juno said, suddenly stepping away and walking into the light.

The professor suddenly came out of his daze and stumbled desperately toward the bright rectangle. "Wait!" he cried, but it was too late, the doorway -- perhaps some sort of interdimensional gate -- had vanished, and with it went his life's work.

* * *

Hours later, the professor was still standing beside the water fountain. Darkness fell, and the stars began to shine. Slowly, he looked up at those shimmering points of light that beckoned to him, as always, yet now they seemed to be farther away and more elusive than ever.

Story copyright 2002 by Garry Dean 2001 garrydean1@bigpond.com

Illustration copyright 2002 by Eric Seaholm eric@seaholm.com

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