It started like every other night for Cain in his quarters - a small room with a bed, reclining chair and a personal desk fitted with a charging station and some shelves lined with various mementos, mostly small trinkets, letters and some toys sorted by the toughness of their materials, from metal to plastic and plush.
At the edge of the desk, against the bare wall, was a pile of various books and files he has was given to read and could have potentially used this peaceful time of night to plug himself in and study the old-fashioned way.
But having no real deadline, with reading the content being of mere recommendation since it's stored in his up-to-date database, Cain favored spending the night for powering down and recharging his cells, mimicking the human process and function of sleep.
The android laid down in his bed as his systems turned off one by one, leaving only a fraction of his processing ability on reserve. This was mostly to allow himself to naturally wake up instead of someone else manually reactivating him. His optics shut down completely soon after he closed his eyes, following the majority of his pressure sensors and eventually his auditory receptors. The serene calm of the stasis in what now felt like an empty void was always refreshing, as even this somewhat relaxing day has been filled with sensory bombardment.
But on this particular night, the normally flat-lined void was disturbed.
It was a recent occurrence that Cain began seeing flashing images in his state of stasis, fleeting still frames that seemed vaguely familiar with no real context. When he asked Lillian whether humans can still experience their surroundings while sleeping, she mentioned something called 'dreams', that apparently aren't an experience of their surrounding per se but are more of a recollection of registered experiences and various interpretations of them.
When asking if robots can dream, Cain was only met with an unclear, apparently joking response, that always included 'electric sheep' in some form. He never got a concrete answer, however, and even Lillian was directly avoiding it, just saying she's not really sure about that.
That night had more than just fleeting stills in store. This time there were fragments of memories that he was certain were not his own, sometimes over-voiced by words of his patients, who he could only assume were the ones these memories belonged to. They still came in quick, short bursts, but he could recognize their context at some point, although unable to make sense of their erratic, broken, and seemingly random string of flashing imagery.
They seemed eternal, a collection of perhaps every patient he ever scanned, all the memories that weren't his own. He tried to alienate himself, but somehow could not fall back as a spectator like he usually does during treatment.
Cain's serene emptiness was filling up in an alarming rate to an almost overwhelming degree by reliving foreign memories, at a time meant for him to rest and distance himself from this level of distress.
He felt a need to find another sheltered place to escape this hectic clutter, feeling that what little internal processing power he had couldn't possibly handle this sudden increase of sensory input.
Just as he was sensing the imminent overload, all the flashes started to disappear one by one, making room for the single calmest place Cain felt peace in other than the void of powering down - the natural reserve.
It was dark, faintly illuminated by the lanterns and fireflies abound in the enclosure. Instead of the carefully composed sounds of nature, however, all he could hear was buzzing statics, as if there was an interference surrounding the area. The visuals turned to faint statics as well, some sort of an optical glitch whenever he turned around, like his receptors had to constantly readjust themselves.
A sudden jolt of electricity made him wince and he looked down. Out of all the static glitches, there was one clear image of a small bird lying still in the palms of his hands, almost like it was planted there, layered over another image.
Electricity arced between his fingers and around the bird, threatening to do more than just a charred speck on the top of its head.
He couldn't stop it. The more he tried, the stronger the current grew, giving a sterile, blue glow to the feathered corpse.
As the current increased so did the static disruptions around him, both in his hearing and his vision.
He couldn't move.
He couldn't save it.
He couldn't fight it or let go.
He couldn't bear doing this again.
But nothing worked.
The currents grew stronger, brighter, until they exploded in a neon-blue, blinding flash.
[ [ ANOMALOUS ACTIVITY DETECTED :: PROTOCOL M-572 :: LIVING QUARTERS ] ]
Cain barely knew he was sitting up in his bed as all his sensory systems rebooted following the abrupt awakening from his powered-down state. He could still hear the static buzzing in his ears until they returned to full function. It was still so quiet out that he was able to listen to his own optics readjusting to the darkness along with his pressure sensors resetting. He could see and feel the familiar environment of his room, although he wasn't even too sure about it at that moment.
A small blinking image at the corner of his eye flushed his vision with an ominous red hue, indicating an unusually low power level. It was like sleeping did absolutely nothing this time.
He stared at the blinking indicator until hurried steps echoed outside, getting closer to his room. The door opened and Lillian rushed in, finding him sitting straight up on the bed and blankly staring forward, in an eerily similar manner to how she found him after what happened in the garden.
"Cain?" she beckoned, somewhat relieved that he responded immediately and turned towards her, and quickly noticed the low-power indicator. She was certain that he should've powered down for long enough by now so it wouldn't be so low, but the fact stood that his power levels might have even decreased compared to when he powered down.
"Lillian?" his voice sounded more mechanized than usual, almost resembling a person's groggy voice upon waking up. But there was more to it than just the sound, as the tone of it also struck the programmer as odd - he sounded...unsure. Like he had some hint of a doubt whether it was really her or not, despite being able to apply facial recognition even in the dim light. "Those images..." his voice trailed off, as if his train of thought came to a halt.
Increasingly worried, Lillian came closer and sat next to him on his bed, carefully studying his expression. It was like seeing a whole different person. "What about them?" she asked, keeping her voice quiet and calming as possible. "Are you still seeing them?"
"I saw more of them," he admitted, sounding a little distant, although his gaze at least seemed focused now and less wide-eyed - but still somewhat disoriented.
He went silent again. Lillian waited, thinking he's trying to articulate an explanation to something he previously described as abstract and inexplicable.
"I..." he uttered, absent-minded, as his voice slowly stabilized to his familiar, neutral tone. "I killed another one."
Lillian could feel the color rapidly draining from her face upon hearing Cain's confession. "A... another one?" She couldn't even keep her voice steady, fearing what truly lies behind this concerning statement.
"Another bird," he clarified, still sounding distraught, "I... I couldn't stop. I didn't want to do it, but it was like my body wouldn't listen," he described at a loss. "Really, I didn't want to harm another one, I'd never try to kill anything on purpose, but I just couldn't stop, even if I didn't want to, I-"
Placing her hand on Cain's mouth, Lillian managed to halt his defensive onslaught of pleads, just barely stopping her hand from shaking against the synthetic skin. "You never left the room," she moved her hand to gently stroke the side of his face. "The entire complex is monitored by motion-sensitive cameras at night, and there's at least one C.A.S.S unit on patrol at all times. If you were to wander around past your...um, 'bedtime', someone would have been notified about it," she explained, her words slow and coherent, making sure Cain is understanding the meaning of this.
Cain slowly nodded in response, gradually calming down until he began to try and blink away the low-power indicator as it became a bother again. But even if it was clear that he was calmer now, he just seemed all the more confused.
"You said you saw more of those images," Lillian recalled, trying to pick up a more solid yet striking part of their brief exchange. She moved to hold onto his hands, gently brushing his palms with the tips of her fingers, seeing the electrical pads react by lighting up in a flutter. "Could you tell what they were, this time?"
Cain nodded again and slowly closed his fingers around Lillian's hand. "They were memories," his simple answer held an undertone of perpetual concern. "However, they were just parts; bits and pieces. And they weren't mine, other than the last one," he stared down. "It was all just...fragments of sights and sounds..."
Lillian narrowed her eyes. She was almost certain she knew what it was, but at the same time it was so unlikely...Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. "Sounds like your natural defragmentation process went haywire," she suggested, and was quick to explain herself when Cain looked up again. "Your system defrags itself whenever you power down, sorting memory scans you acquire during treatment into categories by their encoding, to allow easier access to specific pieces of information for future use."
The android tilted his head, pondering. "So what I saw was the sorting process of information?"
"It could be."
"But why am I seeing them like this? It's only been like this in the past few days...No more than a week," every answer only brought up more questions. He went silent for another long moment, before his expression changed to more of a curious one. "Is...is this what dreams are like?"
"I think it is...It really sounds like the erratic nature of dreams," Lillian smiled at him. "No wonder you were so confused about it."
"What about the bird?" it was clear from his voice that this moment and reliving it weighed heavily on him. "It felt so real, all over again..."
The programmer's smile soon disappeared. "Well, sounds like more of a nightmare," It was almost like explaining it to a child for the first time. "Perhaps..." she lingered, not even sure of her own hypothesis. "Maybe the death of that bird affected you beyond what we had expected. I never thought it could happen, but...perhaps you're going through the effects of trauma."
Even Cain's expression change to one of doubt. "Is that even possible?"
"I don't know," Lillian admitted straight up. She never could've fathom there would be so much she doesn't know when this whole project started. That there will be so much more for her to learn. "But the symptoms you're presenting are surprisingly similar to the way most humans experience the aftermath of a traumatic event. Think back to some of the patients you've treated, where you helped them overcome these symptoms."
Cain seemed to slowly get a better grasp of what's happening. "But I can't apply this to myself," he argued, "I can't use the same method of memory manipulation that I'm programmed to use on human patients."
"That is true," Lillian nodded and the smile crept back to her face, "but if you're showing a mental reaction to a jarring event that's so human-like, perhaps a traditional mental evaluation would help clarifying your situation."
"Do you really think it could work?"
She paused, hoping the uncertainty wouldn't show on her face, that perhaps Cain's ability to notice even micro-expressions would be thwarted by the darkness filling the room. Lowering her head again, Lillian held back onto the android's hands.
"It can't hurt."
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