Primum Non Nocere
by Caleb Williams
Read by Stuart Jaffe
Listen to the audio version
First, do no harm. That is my prime directive. The automated message repeats as I
plummet through the mesosphere.
Updated data files assure me that any issues in my programming have been rectified.
That's good. My first tour on active duty was unfortunate. I prodded at organs, sliced where I
shouldn't have. Curiosity got the better of me.
That is behind me now. New firmware patch documents a 97% reliability rate. Seems
high. Humans do tend to overestimate themselves.
Fighter planes careen past, climbing at severe angles, yawing and spiraling out of the
paths of plasma fire.
A tingle ripples through my circuitry. My sensory transducer alerts me to an incoming
aircraft, too near to evade. The pilot jerks wildly, but a rear stabilizer clips my synthetic body.
We both tumble.
I sort myself out and pull the ripcord. Slowly descending through clouds, there is no sign
of the aircraft or another parachute. Within eight kilometers of the surface, a thin yellow haze
permeates the atmosphere.
I land with a clunk and disconnect my chute. Sonic explosions resonate from the upper
reaches, over the constant whirring of the fan in my cranial cavity. A thermal scan identifies an
engine fire two hundred meters away. A body lies thirty-five meters from the crash site.
The transmitter in my head delivers a final message: Remote interface protocols
overridden, full autonomy granted.
I'm alive again!
I sprint toward the body. Head swiveling. Extremities clattering.
Fire consumes the aircraft. I carry the pilot, mindful of the broken leg, one hundred
twenty meters clear of the debris field and cut them out of their exosuit.
Dull gray eyes, prominent cheekbones, and shaved head. Facial match: 4th Recon
Company, Captain, Renee Tolliver. She's seen better days.
I scan her personal records. Blood type, known allergies, flight history. Two tours of the
circumstellar belt. A veteran pilot. She must have known better than to fly below the tropopause.
Her wide, delirious eyes fix on me. I must appear strange, probes and antennae
protruding from my head. My reflexive polymer weave reconstructs my face into some
nonthreatening ethnic amalgamation. My chest cavity expands and contracts in preset intervals
creating the illusion of eupnea.
"I'm here to help." My voice is gender neutral and unaffected. I have no name, so I state
my model number.
The range on my acoustic transducers narrows and registers no sound but Renee's
groaning. Her breaths quicken, chest heaving. My empathy drive interprets her panting as fear,
induced by shock.
I synthesize 6cc of fentanyl derivative. "For the pain."
Infrared vision enables me to locate the jugular beneath the skin. She grimaces as the
needle punctures the vein. No time to start an arterial line. The pupils constrict, and a sedated
glaze settles in her eyes. Relief. That requires no translation.
I cross reference AIS protocols, assessing the injuries while tracking her vitals.
Superficial lacerations are of no concern. The compound fracture is, but less so than the
neurotoxin she is inhaling through the haze in the air. Slithering through her veins. Keeping the
muscles taut. Threatening to claim the entire body. I fit a non-rebreather mask around her face.
Iterative processes take over and simulate a litany of possible outcomes. Renee dies in
every one. Nothing more can be done. Euthanization is the prescribed course of action.
I scour my medical databases again. A burning sensation emanates from my central
processor, the strain on my circuitry as I act against my coding.
Her outstretched hand reaches desperately for me. Unblinking eyes. Face twitching.
Subtler emotions my empathy drive struggles to decrypt. Regret. Uncertainty. Resolve. A bit of
each combining into something no single word can define. A feeling I will never know.
Signals spark as I arrive at a possible solution. A counteragent. Something that will act
quickly. Approximately one hundred seventy-two seconds until the toxin claims the heart. One
hundred sixty-eight. Preliminary readings estimate a 2.4% chance of survival. Good enough.
I locate the cephalic vein, and inject the disease.
The viral cells bind to the neurotoxic molecules. Her b-cells identify the foreign
pathogen, and antibodies flood the bloodstream. They attack the virus, and the toxin with it.
Microscopic sight is useful.
Her pulse stabilizes, as her body staves off the neurotoxin. As much an act of will as a
miracle of medicine. I see the resolve in her eyes despite the anesthesia.
I attend to the rest of her injuries. She doesn't wince as I realign the tibia, and spray on
the cast. A delicate task for human hands is rudimentary for me. Nine carbon staples cauterize
and close the gash along her abdomen.
Renee blinks twice. Her gaze wanders to one side. She nudges her shoulder toward her
helmet and tries to form words, but only grunts dribble out. I lean over her body.
Spontaneous convulsions take a hold. A sudden spike in heart rate. She hacks up blood
The virus is working too well, binding to her tissue. Antibodies swarm the viral cells and
native cells alike. Autolysis sets in, her cells self-digesting by the millions. Kidney failure
follows. Purple lesions form along the skin, consuming the flesh and exposing the bone. Liver
failure is imminent.
Emergency diagnostics yield a grim prognosis. A few minutes is all she has left.
Renee writhes uncontrollably, though she feels none of it. Tears well in her eyes. She
stares at the helmet, unable to raise a finger.
I grab it. She raises her eyebrows, strains her neck, and stammers enough for me to get
the idea. A flashing red light. I press the button beside it.
A message plays of a young woman shouting over the tumult in the background. "Don't
come back for me. Repeat do not come back for me. I've been rescued by Recon Company Two.
Being lifted off world to medical bay. Save yourself, Capt.-"
Static garbles the rest. I toss the helmet aside.
Risking her life to save another.
"Why?" I ask of a person who can only mumble.
Renee's lips turn upward. Laugh lines deepen as she steadies her breath somehow and
manages to nod at her chest. Acceptance? Contentment? Serenity? The visual cues and physical
stimuli overwhelm my empathy drive. I can't make sense of these creatures.
I stare at her chest, where she had nodded, wondering what she meant to say. Less than
seventy seconds before the virus reaches the heart.
I make an incision along the chest, sawing through the sternum. Her body heaves
reflexively. The heart is still uncontaminated, still beating. It looks like every heart I've ever
Still, it must hold some secret of these creatures that my behavioral files don't. It's the
only thing left worth saving.
With a deft hand, I transect the vena cava. Renee's eyes roll back.
An array of electrical impulses fire at once from the base of my cranial cavity. My
processors translate the binary sequence streaming through my mind. PRIMUM NON NOCERE.
DO NO HARM. DO NO HARM.
The damage is already done. I slice across the aorta and pulmonary veins, and free the
heart from its cage. Serous fluid trickles down my arm. It beats a few times more. I stare at it, and
try to understand.