This story is by Evrim Akyilmaz and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
“running system diagnostics…
… 5 …4…3…2…1…
Power efficiency… %100!
Memory efficiency… %100!
Performance efficiency …. %100!
Reliability efficiency… %90!
Initiating Sequence in 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1!”
A man with white hair sits on a white bench and starts eating his white Goulash on a white plate with his white cutlery. An elderly woman at the corner, wearing a long white gown, is sitting on another white bench made of marble. A group of younglings singing white songs over white grass that never moves. The trees, the center stone, the sky, every detail in this existence and even its inhabitants have been swallowed in colorless, lifeless, white.
But I remember colors. From before. Before I ended up here. Somewhere deep in my memory, I know the sky is blue and the sun is warm yellow. The wind has a green tint and the songs reflect nothing but all shades of purple. I can still taste the red in my wine.
It doesn’t matter how hard I try to remember, I just can’t… It is there, I know, at the corner of my memory like a peripheral vision that keeps eluding me the moment I look for it. I can’t remember how I ended up here.
After the initial horror was gone and my eyes somehow got adjusted to white – I don’t think anybody can truly ever get used to white – I sat under this tree and started thinking. And I haven’t moved since then. Still, lifeless, like the leaves above me.
I have been thinking, yes, thinking to go back. Back where? Can’t remember. How? Don’t know. Searched everywhere, walked every possible direction, looked under every bench, dug inside every inch of grass, talked to every possible being.… Nothing! No lock, no key. No way out!
Only that stone. Long, tall, perfect cylindrical column. That center stone stands out and peeks my interest every now and then. In my still form, I can’t keep myself but throw white glances at it.
There are some markings on the stone. A round shape like O and a straight line like I, and followed by another straight line and another round shape. The markings circle all around and I can clearly see the pattern but I can’t make the heads and tails of it. Something, though, tells me that I used to know this.
“OIIOOIOI OIIIIOOO OIIOIOOI OIIIOOII OIIIOIOO”
All of a sudden, I see a blink of color. Green, maybe, or blue, I can’t tell the difference really, after staring into white so long.
A mark blinks then another then another. It is very hypnotizing. Blinking very fast now.
I peel my eyes away with difficulty and look at others. They all see what I see. So I am not imagining things. I move, after a lifetime of sitting, I stand up and get close to the center stone. Looks like I am not the only one.
There are words, maybe hidden in markings? No. they blink so fast, I can’t make a word let alone a letter. Though I still understand what they are saying. We all do.
Silently, more like hypnotized, we form a line in front of the stone. Stone is generous. It gives each and every one if us a little stone tablet. No bigger than a palm of the hand. But the tablets are wicked. They each hold a question which we need to answer when we are called back.
When are we going to be called back? No one knows and stone doesn’t say.
As sudden as it started, blinking stops. Stone turns white cold and everything is as lifeless as it was before.
I look at my tablet. Same texture as the center stone, same markings on it. No, not same. “O”s and “I”s are arranged differently. I don’t know how to read it but I know what it asks. The question sends a shiver down my spine. I am afraid of my question.
Everybody is talking. Everybody is afraid and no one knows why. It is because of the big unknown maybe.
Nobody is sure about their own answers. Someone tries to ask his question to others but looks like he can’t put the question into words. Others try too. No point in trying. The questions are personal they can’t be asked again. But answers are not. So everybody starts debating on their answers. Lots of talking going on. Buzzing bees in an endless white resonating senseless stream of conversations. Hurts my head.
Not too long after, the center stone starts blinking again. Calling someone for sure. But not me. I am grateful that I am not the first one to be called. I have no answer to my question. My mind is as blank as this white around me.
The guy who finished his goulash sometime ago is the first person to give his answer. He doesn’t seem confident enough. He takes a deep breath and says “Reputation!”.
Everybody is watching him, but I can’t stop staring at the markings, cause they are changing colors. They are now blinking red. This isn’t the smooth red of my wine. This red is angry.
I hear the sound of thunder, so strong that it rattles my teeth. Naturally, I look up to see the lightning and maybe even expect the rain to fall after. But this lightning has a purpose. It falls on the poor guy and obliterates him, goulash and all. Only a white pile of ash left on the ground from the man who answered “reputation”.
Someone screams, someone curses, someone cries. Some even try to run. Total panic. And in this chaos I stand frozen, trying to understand, trying to digest, trying to find a reason, trying to think an answer.
When the panic turns to wailing sobs, I finally move, still keeping my eyes on the center stone, I bump into a young woman. Maybe half my age. She must have been crying.
“Do you have an answer? “ She asks me.
“Yes.” I lie. “Do you?”
“I think so. But what if it is the wrong answer? I don’t wanna be … “ points her finger to the ashes “… zapped!”
She starts sobbing. I give her a hug. It is not like me. I don’t hug others. I must be scared myself.
A young man pitches into our moment of serenity.
“I do have my answer as well and I am sure I have the right answer.” he chirps brightly.
“How do you know it is the right answer? “ I wonder.
“I feel it in my bones. In my very existence….”
“As if it is part of me,” the young woman says.
“As if the answer is everywhere I look.” Adds the young man.
“As if I can breathe it. As if I am …” a brighter smile broadens her face.
“The answer!” winks the young man. That flirtatious prick!
I feel like crying. I don’t have an answer to feel it in my bones or toes or anywhere else. I can’t think anything but the moment the lightning hit the goulash guy.
“So what is your answer?” I try to ask nonchalantly.
“Love” answers the girl. She jumps up and down all happy as if she can’t contain herself anymore, and hugs the guy in a big warm embrace.
They squeal and they chirp, and I sink deeper into the white desperation.
Not so long after, the center stone blinks, calls the girl, she walks toward it, hands over her tablet and answers, “Love” and she disappears. Not like zapped, more like eased-in to non-existence.
“I can’t wait for my turn,” the young man says in his smile.
“Yeah, me too.” I force myself.
I don’t understand though. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t seem to make any difference if the answer is right or wrong. You cease to exist in either case.
We stand there and watch as people get called in. More get zapped with thunder and lightning and only some disappear into the white all happy and serene. And after watching so many, I know what I want. I want to ease-in, not get zapped. Getting zapped looks painful. I don’t wanna be hurt.
I hear others talking. They say they have answers that they feel in their bones. I feel like I am caged and the cage is too tight around my chest, I can’t breathe.
I start crying, panic gets hold of me and if I can’t find an answer, the right answer, what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do?
Young man is still standing next to me. A step ahead maybe. Watching with sad eyes as others get zapped. Clapping in excitement when someone makes it into the white existence.
I wanna be like him. I wanna be him. Confident. Strong.
I see the young man’s tablet in his right pocket. I look at mine. I can’t breathe. I am getting dizzy.
I guess I am lucky. He didn’t realize when I swapped the tablets. I tried to time it right, though, right after a zapping.
“You never told me your answer, ” I ask.
He leans over my ear and whispers. “Hope”
When the stone blinks and calls for me, I feel heavier than before, heavier than the white around me. The young guy gives me a pat on the shoulder for the encouragement which makes me feel worse. I nod at him without looking. How can I?
I stand in front of the center stone, deliver my tablet and give my answer. “Hope.”
Everything turns to a blinding black but I hear someone screaming from far away, “Nooo…”
“Artificial Intelligence is ready for download”
“Initializing download sequence.”
“How many AIs passed the test, Jim?”
“So far, out of hundred personalities, only eleven answered their questions correctly, Dr. Wood. But there are still fifty-nine to go.”
“And the ones that passed the test? Are they being deployed?”
“Yes, Dr. Wood. I’ve initialized their download sequence the moment they passed their test. The synthetic bodies are being deployed and they will be ready for human service soon.”
“How soon Jim? This is a huge shipment we need to make.”
“Tomorrow morning, they will be ready for the final check up Dr.”
“Good, that’s good. I’ll go get some rest now.”
“I don’t feel good about rushing like that. The reliability is not %100 efficient and we are doing only one test rather than our usual three. It just doesn’t feel right. What if…”
“It is just protection service Jim. They all need to make the right moral choices to protect. That’s what this test is designed to measure.”
“But we only look for the correct answer. In our other tests we look for multilevel decision making and how the emotions are affecting their reasoning skills. This is just a linear baseline test…
“I know Jim. After this shipment, I promise, I will talk to South Robotics Co. managers. I will tell them what it takes to create a moral AI and how important that is for human lives we serve. So hopefully, they won’t rush us like that next time. ”
“ Thank you, Dr.”
“See you tomorrow Jim.”
Under the blinking florescent light of the white laboratory, overlooking the larger section where synthetics are being deployed with Artificial Intelligence who passed the test, Assistant Dr. Jim Harris can’t shake the feeling that something is extremely wrong. Maybe he is just overworked and tired or maybe….