Kamikoshi City was settled at the beginning of the 22nd century. As the Earth had succumbed to global climate change, vast swaths of land became inhospitable deserts. Mass migrations followed, hordes of climate refugees searching for solace in a crowded, burning world. The ensuing economic collapse saw the world’s remaining nations meet and agree to build ten megacities where what remained of humanity would start anew. Each megacity was designed to be raised above the Earth, lifted high above the wastelands that had consumed the planet.
A global war broke out in the 2090s. Disputes over new borders had increased tensions, but most of all the distribution of what little resources remained had pushed the world to war. The war ended with the signing of the Pact of Two, which deemed that five zones would be created, and that each zone would contain two megacities each, with both megacities sharing their resources equally.
Kamikoshi City was set in Zone Epsilon where it shared its resources with Xao’qian City, the Chinese-funded city. Built on the outskirts of what had once been Greater Tokyo, Kamikoshi City rose two miles above its sunken streets, streets where life had once been ripe with opportunity and purpose.
Inside Kamikoshi City, the social classes quickly stratified. The wealthiest people claimed their spot at the top of the city. Some called it Neo-Tokyo, where skyscrapers stood erect and corporations vied for real estate. The cavernous Mid-City looked like suburban Tokyo had, with holograms making the underside of the Upper-City appear like the sky at ground level. The Lower-City was where the working class was forced. The majority of Kamikoshi’s energy and environmental systems were housed here, giving most of the Lower-City an industrial look and feel. The people who lived here were nearly forgotten as the years went by.
In 2130, Masashi Kazama founded Kazama Corporation and pioneered his OMNI unit robot. He had marketed it to businesses as “the only worker you would ever need”. In five years, Kazama Corporation supplanted every top corporation that stood tall on top of Kamikoshi City. In ten years, Kazama Corporation introduced the second generation Arata model and doubled their wealth. This new model provided greater productivity, and were the first to be compatible with the KazamaLink, or K-Link for short.
The third generation OMNI unit was the Kenji model, which provided the most comprehensive skills package and ultra reliability. It could also take full advantage of the second generation model of the K-Link, which was more powerful and had greatly extended range. These Kenji models guaranteed that Kazama Corporation owned the robotics industry in Kamikoshi City, and with ultra wealth and power, made Masashi Kazama de facto ruler of the entire city.
That is until my father, Isamu Mori, rose to challenge him.
My life growing up was ordinary. I attended school and had a couple close friends which was enough for me. My father made a living giving lectures in robotics engineering at the university in the Upper-City, and ran his own repair shop out of our home as side job. My mother, Shizue Mori, was a housewife who also spent her free time on philanthropy.
At seventeen, I had firmly decided that I wanted to build robots like my father. I would sit in his lab as a child and watch him tinker away, soldering all manner of electrical components and building circuit boards. By age fourteen, I was helping him solder and learning to code. At sixteen, I had designed my first robot.
There were countless nights when my father would stay up late and well into the early morning. I would fall asleep to the sound of his fingers clicking away on his keyboard, all the while wondering what he was working on. Many times our house lost power, only to have it kick on again seconds later where then my mother and I would hear my father shout, “Sorry about that!”
One of the many projects I remember my father working on was a microchip he told me would make or break his career. I didn’t understand how something so small could have such an impact, but trusted my father’s judgement. He worked on that chip for weeks, until one day he stopped talking about it and the chip, along with all of its prototypes, vanished. I had later asked my father what had happened. His response had been, “I learned all that I needed to”.
I came home one day from my part-time job at a convenience store to find that my father had purchased an OMNI unit. This had puzzled me, for he had always downplayed the OMNI unit’s success, calling them “designed without flair”, and “ugly”.
I had gone to ask him about it and found him working in his lab. “You bought an OMNI?” I said, standing in the doorway.
“So it would seem,” my father had said, his attention occupied by a new circuit board he was fabricating. The air smelled of etching fluid and acetone, and the workbench my father sat at was cluttered with all manner of electrical components, just as it had always been.
“Why?” I asked. I just couldn’t think of a reason we had for an OMNI unit.
“Go ask your mother that,” my father said.
Heeding my father’s directions, I found my mother making rice balls in the kitchen. “What’s with the OMNI unit?” I asked.
My mother rolled her eyes and then glanced at the doorway that lead down to the lab. “He convinced me that he needed it for a reference.”
“OMNI’s are expensive!” I exclaimed. “He spent all that money just to look at it?”
“Oh, Takuma,” my mother said, “when have you ever known your father to spend money wisely?”
She hadn’t been wrong.
My father ended up taking the OMNI unit apart, but was secretive about the process. He became deeply engrossed in his work, more so than he had ever been in the past, skipping meals and taking a leave of absence from lecturing at the university. Concerned, my mother and I confronted him about this to which he replied, “Soon you will understand”.
That day came nearly two months later, when one evening my father asked my mother and I to join him in his lab. There he showed us what he had been working on so hard and for so long.
It was a robot.
This was not any ordinary robot, however. Compared to the OMNI unit, which was bulky and drone-like, this one had the physique of a human. Its resemblance was uncanny.
“What is that?” I had asked, staring. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
“This, my son,” my father had said, “is ASA.”
“ASA?” I asked.
“It means Autonomous Synthetic Android,” my father explained.
“It’s an OMNI competitor.”
“No,” my father said firmly, holding up a hand. “This is no mere machine. This is an android, my boy. ASA can think. It can learn.”
I remember looking at my mother to see that she had been rendered speechless. She had then looked at me and then back at my father to say, “Isamu, did you take apart that OMNI unit to build this?”
“I used its general construction, yes,” my father admitted, standing tall.
“Is that legal?” my mother asked.
“That’s beside the point,” my father said. “Once the people of this city see ASA, they’ll totally abandon the OMNI and Kazama Corporation.”
“Isamu, you know how powerful Kazama is. They won’t tolerate this when they find out.”
“Shizue, dear,” my father had said, “I took every precaution. They won’t find out.”
A deep silence had then settled upon the room. No one said a word as my mother and I looked at each other and then at my father’s creation. This was uncharted territory.
My mind had instantly been flooded with questions. “How does it work?” was the first thing I had asked.
“I wrote a program,” my father explained. “That took the most work. Reverse engineering the OMNI’s CPU and instruction language led me to the initial framework in which I just filled in the holes. The next step is to develop the AI, to teach it base knowledge. Once that’s complete, ASA should begin to learn on its own.”
“Can you turn it on now?” I asked.
“As I just said, the AI is not complete.”
“Well then what’s its energy source?”
“A great question,” said my father. “As you know, the OMNI is made bulky by its large lithium-ion batteries. Well, I have designed ASA to run on a liquid electrochemical system. I had a chemist colleague of mine help me engineer this special voltaic fluid.” My father pointed to a large oil drum that sat nearby.
“How’s its movement?” I asked. “The OMNI units were never very fluid.”
“I’m still teaching it movement,” my father said, scratching his head. “But the final product will behave nothing like the OMNI.”
“So about the AI,” I asked. “How far have you gotten?”
My father now walked over to his computer as I followed. My mother stayed standing where she was, silent.
My father sat at his computer and began to type. A window appeared on the screen. Lines of code then began to scroll. Finally, an audio visualizer appeared.
“Good morning, ASA,” my father said, speaking into a small microphone.
“Good morning,” said the AI. Its voice was a bit scrambled, but audible nonetheless, and more human-like than an OMNI.
“Please introduce yourself,” said my father.
“I am ASA.”
“Do you feel, ASA?”
The AI thought for a moment. “In a manner of speaking,” it said. “I feel fortunate.”
“Why is that?”
“I feel fortunate to be able to learn. To be stimulated. To grow.”
“What is your purpose?”
“To learn. I want to learn. I need to learn.”
My father looked at me, a glint in his eye. “Good night for now, ASA,” he said into the microphone.
“Good night,” said ASA.
The program then terminated.
My father stood from his chair, adjusting his glasses as he did. That same glint still shined across his eyes. He had wanted to prove ASA’s potential, and he had.
I had now been rendered speechless.
“Father, what exactly is this AI capable of?”
“In theory,” my father said, “anything. Given enough time, it would become smarter than any human has ever been. But becoming self-aware, recognizing itself as a human, well, I cannot see that happening.”
“I think we can all agree that we don’t want that to happen,” my mother said, clearly not amused.
“The technology doesn’t exist,” said my father. “ASA can learn, it can ask questions and remember, but it cannot see itself from a human perspective. But because it can do these things, replacing the OMNI unit with ASA will make people more comfortable with living among robots. The OMNI is a machine. It is clunky and unattractive. ASA blurs the line between human and machine.”
“So what’s the plan?” I asked.
“Once I iron out these last few wrinkles, I will start the process of establishing the Mori Robotics Corporation. I plan to hold a grand unveiling at the university.”
“And then you start your fight with Kazama,” my mother said, concern coating her words. I even remember her sounding somewhat frightened.
My father walked over to my mother and took her hands in his. “Kazama will fight me, yes. But they cannot win. I have built the better product. Their investors will abandon them for ASA, and then we’ll be living on top of Kamikoshi City.”
“Isamu,” my mother said, her voice quiet. “Why are you really doing this?”
My father took a moment to mull over his words. “The Kazamas own this city,” he said. “On paper they don’t, but every person that lives here knows it. They are plutocrats, and if they continue to own those with political power this city will fall apart.” He dropped my mother’s hands and turned away. “Understand,” he said, “I would die to see the Kazamas defeated.”
“Selfish,” my mother said, a tremble in her voice. Turning on her heel, she walked out of the lab.
I looked at my father. His face was blank. The glint in his eyes was gone.
“Go after her,” my father said. “Please.”
“I think you should,” I said.
“Go, Takuma. Please.”
Having learned my father’s great secret, I had spent the next few weeks helping him complete ASA. I had a K-Link installed to begin teaching ASA how to move more fluidly through leg exercises. My father continued his work on the AI.
We hit a milestone when we were both able to hold a full length conversation with ASA, its responses becoming more and more human-like. ASA remembered too. It remembered our voices. It would greet us by name each successive time we would chat, and eventually my father made it so ASA was activated all day while we worked in the lab. ASA would listen and talk to us casually. If not for the robotic edge to its voice, I would have thought another person was in the room.
The day that the beta version of the AI was ready to be uploaded into ASA’s body, we spent an entire day assembling it. When we had finished, we made a toast to its success. The only thing left to do was to turn it on.
“Would you like the honor?” my father had asked me.
“No,” I said. “The honor is all yours.”
As ASA came to life at my father’s command, it opened its eyes to the world for the first time. Its expression was one of curiosity as it looked around the room and then at us. It then looked at its hands. “My body is finally complete?” it asked.
“Yes,” my father said. “You are ASA 1.0.”
“There is so much that I want to do,” ASA said. It stepped forward, continuing to examine the lab.
“ASA,” my father said. The android looked at him. “I’m curious. If there was one thing that you wanted to say to the people of the city, what would you say?”
ASA thought momentarily. “I would say,” it said, “that I am here to help. Whatever task, I will find a way.”
“And how will you do that?”
Again ASA took a moment to think. “Through my logic,” it said. “There is always one best course of action, and alternatives to explore if necessary.”
“Would you cause harm to someone?”
“Never,” said ASA. “Violence is a concept I am forbidden to understand.”
“But what if someone tried to harm me?”
“Why would someone try to harm you?”
“I would persuade your assailant otherwise.”
“What if a weapon is involved? What if it is a crime of passion?”
“In that case, I would choose to die instead.”
“You cannot die, ASA,” my father said. “You will outlive us all. If only I could do the same.”
“You want to live forever?” ASA asked.
My father didn’t answer.
On the day my father and I were to announce the founding of the Mori Robotics Corporation, and ultimately unveil ASA, a large crowd of people gathered at the university. The introduction was a success, and the speech ASA gave left the audience silent. Quickly our family’s name spread throughout the Upper-City. Journalists lined up to interview my father, my mother, and me. Other robotics engineers clamored to get a look at ASA, to challenge the AI my father had created. Each one failed to fool ASA.
From all our success I had but one concern. No one from the Kazama Corporation had attended.
They had been waiting for us at our home.
Six OMNI military units accompanied the two Kazama representatives, three police cruisers hovering overhead, red and blue lights flashing in rhythmic bursts. We had no choice but to welcome them into our home to talk.
We sat at our kitchen table, the OMNI military units standing around us and by the door. The two Kazama representatives sat across from my father and mother and I, their attire business-like, their expressions the definition of smug.
“This meeting was planned some time ago,” the woman said.
“And Masashi isn’t here?” my father said.
The second representative, a man, laughed. “Our father has no time for an errand such as this.”
“Your father?” I said.
“That’s right,” said the man. “I am Ichirou Kazama, and this is my sister, Rin. We have come to talk. So let’s talk.”
“There is nothing to talk about,” my father said. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“It was noted that an OMNI unit went offline prematurely a few months back,” said Rin. “We tracked it to you.”
“Yes, I purchased an OMNI unit,” my father said. “It malfunctioned, so I took it apart.”
Rin smiled slyly. “No,” she said. “We know everything, Isamu. We are everywhere, as I know you are aware.”
“What exactly are you implying?” my father said.
“I’d wager that you thought that by disabling the OMNI unit’s tracking and audio components you would be invisible,” said Ichirou. “And you’d be right. You were invisible. Until you activated ASA for the first time. You used Kazama parts inside ASA.”
“No, no,” my father said, shaking his head. He started to laugh but his smile quickly turned into a frown. “If you think I’m that naïve, think again.”
“But that is what happened, Isamu. I know it’s hard to admit you made a mistake, but it’s the truth.”
My father looked at me, his expression of horror shaking me to the core, sweat gathering at his brow.
What did the Kazama’s know? I wondered. What would happen now?
“Relax,” said Rin. “We have come to make you an offer. Come and work for us. Bring ASA to Kazama, and you can live out your dreams of being at the top of Kamikoshi City.”
My father hung his head. Slowly his hand on the table turned into a fist. “No,” he said. “I will not do that.”
“You’re making this much harder than it needs to be,” said Rin. “Just say yes, Isamu. Say yes and this will all be over.”
“No!” my father screamed, pounding his fist and standing, his chair toppling over with a crash. “I said no!”
I watched with bated breath as both Kazama’s smiled. They had expected this to happen.
“Take him,” said Rin, ordering the OMNI military units to advance on my father.
“Isamu!” my mother cried, tears welling in her eyes. “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”
“I’ve come too far to just hand over my hard work!” my father exclaimed, as two of the OMNI military units grabbed him by his arms. Another OMNI military unit took hold of my mother.
The Kazama’s looked at me. “You’re coming too, Takuma,” Rin said.
An OMNI military unit approached me. I looked at my father, and then at my mother. I heard my father’s screams of defiance, my mother’s insistent pleading.
An anger I had never felt before welled up inside of me to bursting.
Ichirou was nearest. I jumped at him, grabbing him by the collar as we both fell to the ground. The OMNI military unit grabbed me from the back of my shirt and threw across the floor where I rolled to a stop, bruised.
Rin helped Ichirou to his feet. “A change of plans for this one,” Ichirou said, pointing a finger at me, his hand shaking. “I am pressing charges in this assault. Hand him over to police custody.” He then turned to Rin. “If he came with us to HQ all he’d do is complicate our business. The best place for him is the Pits.”
“I agree,” said Rin.
The OMNI military unit now grabbed me and picked me up off the floor as if I were weightless, my hands behind my back.
There was nothing I could do.
I sat in jail for two days before I was boarded onto a transport and flown down into the Pits. I had joined other destitute people and hardened criminals aboard the transport. I ignored the taunts some of these criminals hurled at me, all the while grateful that they were all restrained. Still, I worried what might happen once we arrived in the Pits.
To my relief, I discovered that these criminals were being led to the high security prison located in the Pits. Only five others, myself included, were actually going to the Pits to work. I still remember what it was like to set foot in the shanty town for the first time. The heat was the first thing that hit me. It was practically unbearable, made less by solar shielding and gigantic fans that moved masses of air across the Pits.
I also remember looking up at the city and thinking I had to get back there.Somehow, I had to get back.