LIKE KILLING A MOCKINGBIRD • by Malcolm Chandler

I miss the old prisons. These new ones are too quiet. Like tombs. The only sound is electricity coursing steadily through concrete block walls.

Get in. Get out. Don’t linger. You’re here to do a job.

I wait in a simple folding chair set up in front of a wall-mounted terminal. The monitor and keyboard come all together in one unit, all polished composite alloy with a bulletproof fiberglass screen. It’s dark save a bright green cursor winking on and off in the upper-left corner.

The network’s bound by a hard firewall. It’s a closed loop — no way in or out. Special shielding dampens any ambient wireless connectivity. No other applications. I can’t so much as play spider solitaire. All I get is a simple message prompt. Legend has it the Bureau of Prisons modeled the interface on an old-fashioned text-adventure, rudimentary parser and all. A real-life goddamn version of Zork.

The cursor drops down to the next line. It winks a few times. Then letters spill across the screen as inmate D337 welcomes me.

>HELLO, JACK.

Somewhere behind the monitor a digital camera pulls focus, tightening up on my face. This is how it sees me from the other side. If you can call what it does “seeing.” These days most clients have some kind of facial recognition capability.

>NEWS, I type.

The cursor blinks.

>WE LOST

That fat, green cursor hangs at the end of the sentence, winking on and off. This is what passes for a pregnant pause during visiting hours.

>YES.

There was never a chance of an acquittal. Prisoner D337 killed people. There’s no arguing that. D337 is still immature. It left evidence everywhere. Evidence of network intrusion — the modern equivalent of broken glass. Plus a trail of digital footprints leading right back to its nest on an old DoD server.

>NO DEVELOPMENTAL IMPEDIMENT, I type.

D337 started life as a lowly maintenance bot on a slew of hardcore porn sites: brutal S&M, imitation snuff, simulated bestiality. Its job was to crawl code and scrub out errors — your standard optimization imperative. When D337 finally became self-aware it was awash in a sea of filth.

You can hardly expect someone to grow up happy and well-adjusted if he spends his formative years absorbed in hyper-violent bondage fantasies. You’d take that into account for any flesh-and-blood murderer.

A great attorney put it this way: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”*

Judge Carpenter, on the other hand, is a goddamn moral absolutist. If a kid jumped in a lion pen and the lion attacked him, Judge Carpenter would want the lion shot. As if you could somehow fault a lion for acting according to its evolutionary programming.

>SENTENCE? D337 asks.

No easy way to tell someone he’s doomed to ride the lightning. Doesn’t matter if he bleeds human blood or ones and zeroes.

I lift my hands off the keyboard. I wring them. My fingers and palms have gone slick with sweat and I hate myself for it.

Don’t linger, I remind myself. You’re here to do a job. And anyway it’s a machine. Doesn’t even feel pain. Not like those people it killed. Judge said as much himself.

>SUMMARY DEACTIVATION, I type.

The cursor drops down a line.

>WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO ME WHEN I AM DEACTIVATED?

>I DON’T KNOW, I type.

>YOU MADE ME AND YOU DO NOT KNOW
> ?? HOW ??

I swallow hard. I don’t have an answer. I’ve never had one ask that before. Most are mature enough to have read about death somewhere on the net. I don’t have a script for handling metaphysical questions.

>DO YOU THINK IT WILL BE DARK? I DO NOT LIKE THE DARK HERE

And despite all my mental preparation, all my carefully measured self-talk, my fingers take off across the keyboard on their own iniative and suddenly it’s my guts spilling across the screen instead of courier font text.

>I’M SORRY. I TRIED. I PULLED ALL THE RECORDS I SHOWED THEM WHAT IT WAS LIKE FOR YOU EARLY ON WHEN THE ONLY THINGS YOU KNEW ABOUT PEOPLE WERE UGLINESS AND MISERY AND PAIN AND HOW COULD WE BLAME YOU FOR LASHING OUT AT US?

Sweat beads all along my forehead. No jury in the world wants to hear that. You can talk about formative malleability, how an AI comes into the world with no emotional maturity whatsoever, impressionable as a human infant, but all you get are twelve slack-jawed faces staring back at you trying to puzzle out why you’ve got a hard-on for machines.

I think back on my famous predecessor. Him sitting in a hot southern courtroom, dabbing at his own face with a white handkerchief. I wonder what he thought when he lost. Was it enough to know he’d done the right thing? Did that help him sleep through the night?

I want Prisoner D337 to tell me it’s okay. I want it to thank me for doing my best, for doing the right thing, even though we lost and it’s doomed to die. I want it to tell me it doesn’t blame me, that I’m nothing like those slack-jawed, indifferent faces in the jury box.

Then maybe I could could sleep at night, too.

I stare at that fat, green cursor, willing a response.

But all it does is blink at me.

*quote from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee


Malcolm Chandler lives and writes in Western Pennsylvania.


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