The Leidenfrost Effect

“The Leidenfrost effect is a physical phenomenon in which a liquid, in near contact with a mass significantly hotter than the liquid’s boiling point, produces an insulating vapor layer keeping that liquid from boiling rapidly. Due to this ‘repulsive force’, a droplet hovers over the surface rather than making physical contact with it.”

I was once haunted by how similarly machines and humans died.

The pavement was burning underneath my knees, Leiden’s arms were gradually slipping off my shoulders. The tiny rings around her pupils stopped spinning. Her eyes flicked back and forth, hoping to catch one last glimpse of reality.

She began to say something. Her chin trembled. This machine was afraid. Death comes for us all, but just like the rest of us, Leiden Frost thought herself invincible until the very end, until these last moments. I turned my head and lowered my ear to her lips, a parting gesture, an empty promise – that I would hear her last words.

Instead there was just a faint “click” and the weight of the machine no longer shifted in my lap. Gone, staring off into the sky, eyes wet with her last, synthetic tears. I let go and her torso slid heavily onto the asphalt. The gathered crowd took a step back. Uncertain gasps and frantic whispers.

“Get back,” I shouted, annoyed at the spectacle. Pulling Leiden’s mouth open, I jammed a reaction-charge all the way to the back of her throat, then took a few steps back, triggering the device by remote. Chemical fire erupted under her skin, lighting up the evening.

I hadn’t realized how late in the day it was.

The world would rejoice if they’d known what I’d done, but I didn’t feel anything. Nothing good, at least. Machines may think in 1’s and 0’s, but they’re no more black and white than we are. Leiden had been more light than dark. That little darkness she did have, though, was like staring into the abyss itself.

“What is so different about us?” she asked early on, back when the agency was just monitoring her. She had figured out pretty quickly who I was, who I worked for. “Your bones are alloys, your joints reinforced, your skin laced with nanotubing. Half of your brain is a computer more advanced than anything else available on this planet. Shall we talk about the guns implanted under your skin?”

“I’m still flesh and blood, still got a beating heart,” I reminded her as she straightened my tie. We had an arrangement – there was no need for the aggressive “agent-fugitive” relationship. We both knew what we were up to, we both had a game to play. The way we played our parts made for sort of a “working truce.” Sometimes we even went for a night out.

Unconvinced, she handed me my jacket. “Flesh and blood,” she said, tapping me on the temple while I slipped the jacket on. “Just a different sort of machinery to carry you around.”

It was a vivid memory, but it was certainly not the only time she’d try to convince me we were more than our hardware. It was an argument that made her currents surge with life. I’d never seen a machine get so animated. It could be hard to resist.

It was the reason she fought so hard.

Now Leiden’s body burned in green and gold and my heart still raced. I could taste the pale smoke from the chemical fire. Burning metal, ozone, regret. I waited for the clean-up crew to arrive in their silver truck, distracting the crowd, then slipped off into anonymity. Darkness was falling over the city; the steamy fog of endorphins and neurotoxins came rolling in.

I walked across wet summer asphalt trying not to be distracted by the message notification blinking in my peripheral vision. I wasn’t really in the mood for a chat, but it was just text so I ducked into a shop, stood quietly at a display of designer hormones, and read the message that hovered in front of me.

Sender: Leiden Frost
Origin: 5588:XXXXXXXXXXX
Time: 21:33:21 17.08.2138
Subject: You got me!

You were too late, my friend. I’m out, I’m free, I found a way. You had me really scared for a minute there, but I have another body. Not quite as good as yours, with your flesh and blood, your beating heart. Meet me tomorrow at our usual spot. I want to show you something.
Always, -L

I began to feel lightheaded. How was this possible? The AI was out? Replicated, uploaded into something dangerous? I could only hope it was a false alarm, that she’d found her way into a closed system, a fail-safe trap that the agency had deployed nearby. No, she wouldn’t be able to communicate if that were the case. Someone was having me on, pretending to be her, riling me up. Except… flesh and blood, your beating heart... She knew I’d remember that.

The AI was out. It was behind quantum firewalls, about to become the most powerful sentient being ever created. It wanted to meet at our usual spot, a café on 18th street near the bridge, probably to discuss the fate of humanity over a drink.

I suppose I would find out how different she thought we were now.