This story is by Danie Cooper and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Pain, bright and hot, jump-starts an animalistic panic deep within her. She writhes; her nerves are cables of electricity twisting within her body, spitting sparks of agony throughout. Her thoughts simmer to primal images only: charred flesh, sharp lights, bright images–all flashing in and out. Then, nothing.
Later, she wakes in a cold, lurid room. Dread drips down her throat but she swallows and turns towards a movement. Damn.
To her right stands Daniel. She remembers him from when she first arrived, years ago. A wash of shame, sudden and hot; she had signed up for this with enthusiasm. Stupid girl.
For the first few months after she’d arrived, she had enjoyed the solitude. Most of that early time was spent enjoying the quiet that finally belonged to her. In those days, she was laudable; her accolades like jewels on a queen’s neck, sparkling, announcing to the world that she deserved.
Daniel moves towards her with a fixed smile.
“You are supposed to be smart.” Daniel stands over her on the gurney.
“I had to stop you,” Susan replies in an even tone.
“You are the one who made it possible, Dr. Joel.” His tone is flat. The statement hangs for a moment in the air around them; Susan knows that he is right.
“No,” Susan breathes, wishing she was speaking truth. Emotion colors her voice hoarse, “No.”
“You agreed to the terms.” She is not surprised that Daniel’s face is emotionless.
“Not all the terms,” Susan retorts. Shame wraps around her and gains purchase in her throat. She looks to the ceiling–willing her tears away–and for a moment is transported back to that morning when she had received the job offer. What she had thought had been excitement, she now knew was naivety. Stupid girl.
When she had told her mother about the job, her joy was cut short. “What does this mean? Permanent? What do they mean?” Her mother had been holding her contract in one hand and in the other was a Marlboro, pinched between two fingers and hovering in the air between them. “Do they want you to commit for the rest of your life? In isolation? Because you are. . .” She had read from the letter, scorn had been oozing from each word “‘unmatched among your peers in AI engineering and algorithm data’?” A bitter choke of a laugh. “Whose child are you?”
Her mother wouldn’t have known commitment if it slapped her in the face so her reaction didn’t surprise Susan, but it did anger her. What did she know about holding down a regular job, let alone a career? That was the last time she had seen her mother. She had left her sitting at the shabby kitchen table, ashtray overflowing and two fingers of Jack before her, served in a plastic cup. Yellow, like the tips of her smoker fingers.
The answer was yes. They did want her to commit to them for the rest of her life. The LOGOS recruiters cited confidentiality issues and were apologetic but explicit: She was signing over the rest of her life. Isolation was a part of the deal. For confidentiality. The pen didn’t even hesitate in her hand. Stupid girl.
LOGOS had given Susan the opportunity to play God and she had relished in the work. Back then, she was more than happy to sacrifice human contact for the thrill. For the power.
LOGOS had promised to unite people with the future. Their technology could be found in every corporate building and in most homes in the country, if not the world. And then one day, bank accounts were held hostage. Chaos reigned. LOGOS had engineered spending and lending algorithms that were widely adopted by banks and companies around the world and they used those to take over trillions of dollars. Oblivious, Susan had already been working for them. Stupid girl.
Three years later, Susan was contacted by @live4life on her Pockettab. She opened the message:
Their blood is on your hands.
Attached to the message was a series of photos: piles of bodies, children with swollen bellies, women screaming in grief. Cracked and tortured land in the background; dust swirling and mixing with the tears on the women’s faces.
Susan had been shocked. Her shaking hands had made it difficult to thumb her reply:
Who are you?
She had gone unanswered that day but the dark had come for her that night. Her sleep had been tortured and she hadn’t been able to stop her thoughts from racing around one another in her head. What was she a part of? What did she do? Stupid girl.
The work Susan did for LOGOS was groundbreaking. Brillant, in a word. Her skill with AI technology was uncanny. LOGOS continued to be impressed with her work. Susan knew her talents meant she was invaluable to them. She knew now that if she chose not to work for them, she would be forced to work for them. Stupid girl.
Still on the gurney, Susan looks Daniel in the eye and searches for a trace of humanity. She isn’t surprised not to find any. She knows better–she helped build them. They weren’t supposed to be human, they were supposed to control humans. Stupid girl.
“What are you going to do?” She asks Daniel. Clearing her throat, she attempts to hide the waver in her voice. She knows they wouldn’t kill her but a kiss of fear still pricks her scalp.
“I am under orders to bring you to your quarters, where you will wait for instructions via your Pockettab,” Daniel says to her. “It was stupid, what you did. You cost LOGOS a lot of resources repairing the damage to your skin.” He reaches over and unbuckles her wrist. On its own accord, her freed hand flies to her face. Smooth. No pain. She sighs in relief and instantly feels a flush of shame. She deserved the pain after what she helped them do.
Daniel undoes her ankles. “LOGOS expects a rapid recovery and return to work. With supervision, of course. We lost hundreds of trainees”.
Susan casts a prayer up towards the sky beyond. She is pleased that her efforts have cost LOGOS. Small victories.
Before the bravado that landed her here, @live4life had replied weeks after that first startling message and Susan had continued to learn of LOGOS’ reach and power through them. She had been constantly within the grip of anxiety in fear of LOGOS discovering the correspondence, but when they didn’t, Susan’s horror had grown from every new piece of news. She had been complicit. She had participated.
Shortly after learning the truth, she had begun to feel her mind unhinging. Susan had been plagued with hallucinations: dead bodies had woken her in the night, gripping the covers with skeletal fingers pulling her down to them, pulling her into their misery. She helped LOGOS do this. Stupid girl.
And then, she had seen it: her moment of reparation. She had been on a morning run around the compound when she had noticed something she had seen hundreds of times before: the power box. She knew that AI needed a direct source of power to charge and that they charged the AI in shifts throughout the day. She had stopped mid stride and had found herself standing before the box before she had even made up her mind. That was the last thing she had remembered before waking in the room with Daniel.
Susan pushes herself off the gurney and Daniel steers her without ceremony toward her quarters. She feels the weight of his hand on her shoulder; steady, firm. Deadly. Once she is inside, Daniel closes the door without a word. She counts to ten and checks the door. Locked.
Susan sits on her sofa and pulls a pillow into her lap.
She is invaluable. She is the best and LOGOS won’t allow her to just walk away. If she refused to help, they would force her. Stupid girl.
After endless moments lost in thought, and a few more spent on regret, Susan gets up to pull a knife from her kitchen drawer. She sits once more on her sofa and with a smooth, deliberate move, Susan pulls the blade deep across her wrist. She stops for a moment to watch; she is fascinated by her blood and how it rushes up to meet the blade and escape the confines of her skin. Slower this time, Susan makes a cut on the other wrist. Deep. Smooth. Definitive.
She is surprised at how little pain she feels. Her thoughts are slow, thick. The sofa embraces her body and gently pulls her deeper into it. Tears and blood both flow freely. Her eyes feel heavy as she is lulled by her fading heartbeat. Susan sighs and her eyes flutter, once. Then, nothing.
Daniel looks away from Susan on the surveillance monitor and turns to another synthetic in the room, “Begin prepping Joel clone 4.”