Vanessa Aguirre, “So Your Daughter Wants to Take Over the World”
Matthew Aufiero, “The Sound of the Future”
Sara Cline, “The Stray”
Grace Leake, “Meridian”
“Meridian” by Grace Leake
A son is raised by a machine. A mother confronts her inner child. In the space between family and formula, is there room to grow up without pain?
Quentin Harris’s most irrepressible memory of that last summer would be, inexplicably, of the snails.
They arrived in biblical numbers, white shells pulsing through the garden like river stones buoyed by a sudden flood.
Quentin was the first to see them as he slipped outside, stung by an early morning nightmare. In the ashy predawn light, the trails of slime were luminous as vestigial moonlight. He stood by the door and gazed at the glimmering trails, the frosted orbs, and would not take a step for fear of crushing one.
Once the world awoke, he would ask Meridian to tell him everything about the mollusks. His fingers would run over a shell, smooth and cool to his touch. He would be struck by the thought that this creature carried its world with it, would never be separated from its home.
When his mother saw the snails, she thought of her garden, and sprinkled salt across the grass. The snails writhed and shriveled, and Quentin went to his room, and closed his window.
It was a Saturday, which meant a visit to his cousin’s house. Quentin’s mother rolled the windows down on the long drive. The summer air was thick and humid. Quentin closed his eyes and let the damp warmth collect on his face like a second skin.
His mother didn’t talk during the drive. She put on a radio station that played old songs and her eyes went blank and faraway. Outside, the suburban asphalt dwindled into rough dirt farm roads, cracks rippling through the road like sagging skin. The sun seemed stronger away from the city, and the sweltering trees hunched above the car emitted a tired vegetal scent. Quentin tried to imagine that the fields went on forever, an endless swell of golden ripeness.
But soon enough the car slowed, turning lazily into the gravel driveway. His cousin’s squat house sat on thirty acres of farmland, flat and yellow, cows drifting across the grass as if their hooves had lost the knack for gravity.
It was an ugly house, the kind of house his mother said lacked class. There was a rusted pickup truck peeling in the front, and an old moldy couch, and several tires that looked Jurassic.
Aunt Marie was inside, making iced tea. She smiled at Quentin, glowered at Quentin’s mother, and said, You’ll never believe what Dave did this time. Dave was Quentin’s uncle, although he hardly ever seemed to be around.
Quentin drifted towards Jackson’s room while his mother settled into a chair. Jackson was assembling a puzzle on the floor, dark hair falling over his eyes.
“Can I help?”
Jackson huffed. “I don’t need any.”
Quentin wrapped his hands around his knees. “It helps to do the edges first.”
“If you want it to be boring.”
Quentin went to Jackson’s bookshelf and got another puzzle. It was missing some pieces, and some of paper had peeled off the cardboard, leaving long blurs of uncertainty in the final image. Quentin arranged the edges and daydreamed of giant snails meandering through the fields outside, slithering over the cows and rusted trash, melting the world into a shining sea.
Jackson began cracking his knuckles, which he had started doing constantly ever since Quentin told him it bothered him.
So Quentin said, “how’s school going,” even though he knew it was mean.
“Fine,” Jackson said, although he was home schooled now. He had been behind a long time. He was the only kid Quentin knew who didn’t have a Meridian; Aunt Marie liked to say that those robots are a slap to the face of God and America. But when everyone else had a Meridian at home to teach and explain, Jackson couldn’t keep up.
“That’s good,” Quentin said, and Jackson cracked his toes one by one.
They drove home as the light dimmed and the cows began wandering towards the barn.
“Did you have a nice time with Jackson?” Quentin’s mother asked, already turning up the radio.
“Yes,” Quentin said, convincingly.
“He’s your cousin, you know. And we all used to be like that, when we were kids. I think I pulled a clump of your Aunt’s hair out one time after she stole my hairbrush.”
Quentin chewed his lip. His friends at school were much nicer than his cousin.
“Maybe it’s not so bad, anyway, having a bit of a fight. Sometimes I think Meridian has made you too well behaved.” She smiled back at him. “Just kidding.”
By the time they were home, Quentin’s father had gathered the snails’ bodies into two great black trash bags, and Quentin and Meridian sat outside in the empty backyard to practice factoring the quadratic formula. Quentin was going into sixth grade and his school had decided to place his class into Algebra after their record-breaking test scores in the spring. Meridian wanted him to be prepared.
Meridian explained the concept again and again, examples unfolding on its screen. Quentin sighed.
“You’re doing fine Quentin,” Meridian said. “Don’t get frustrated.”
Quentin chewed his lip and tried a problem again on his tablet. “Like this?”
“Almost. You’re doing very well.”
After dinner, Quentin heard the raised voices, and then the yells. He knew his mom had been spending almost all her time at work, and his dad watched TV until late into the morning most nights, but usually they kept their voices low.
Meridian, who was on the charging port in Quentin’s room, was powered down. Quentin fumbled with his toys, willing himself to stop hearing the fight, to fall into another world. He felt his blood rushing, a sense of crashing in his body.
He put down his toys and curled up on his floor. The carpet was rough against his cheek, growing warm and wet as his eyes welled up silently. With his ear against the floor, he could make out syllables, sometimes words.
He was very still, except for his fingers, which he ran up and down his shin, trying to soothe himself. After a while, the skin began to chafe, and he let his fingers drop.
He heard the beep from Meridian’s charging port, and the whirrs as Meridian began to power on. Meridian was quiet at first, the yelling echoing faintly through the room.
“Quentin, are you okay?”
Quentin nodded, his body barely moving.
“Do you want to talk?”
He shook his head no.
Meridian rolled towards him and lay down beside him on the carpet, saying nothing. Quentin turned so that his cheek was pressed against Meridian’s. The metal and plastic felt hard and cold. But after a while, they grew warmer from Quentin’s skin, from the hot tears easing down, warm and wet as a cloud puffed with summer rain. And Quentin fell asleep.
A story gathered on the horizon early the next morning. Quentin’s mom had gone into the office and his dad had gone somewhere else, Quentin wasn’t sure. Meridian and Quentin followed a trail that started in their neighborhood and worked its way through several nearby parks and patches of wood. Meridian’s wheels rattled against the gravel while Quentin walked, noiseless, with padded feet. They didn’t speak. Meridian always seemed to know when Quentin wanted to daydream, alone with his thoughts.
“Look!” an egret had flown above them, white wings ghostly in the early light.
Meridian’s sensors swiveled, but not quickly enough. “Describe it to me.”
Quentin did not say it was beautiful, because Meridian encouraged him to say things in different ways, the ways they seemed best to say. So Quentin said, “It was pale, and weird, and not all there, like a nightmare you want to remember,” and Meridian hummed an acknowledgment.
They passed a girl, about six, walking with her Meridian. Quentin smiled shyly and the AIs hummed at each other. Once, it had bothered Quentin that every Meridian looked the same. He would wake, cold in the night, shaking away dreams of thousands upon thousands of Meridians rolling through a field. He was rushing among them, looking for a symbol, a sign, anything, to find his own.
When he’d told Meridian about these dreams, it had brushed his bangs out of his eyes. “But I would find you, Quentin.”
“But how would I know it was you?”
“Because I am made for you. You would know.” And it was true; although every Meridian was equipped with the same base programming, they were built to learn. They adapted to their particular child, household, situation. They grew a personality. Until, when the youngest child in their home had reached sixteen, they were wiped back to the base system, and sent out to serve a new family. Quentin dreaded his birthdays.
Angel Harris had never intended to be a mother.
She had explained it once to a friend who was drunk and uninterested, ranting as they squirmed in the line for a bar restroom. What I don’t understand, she’d said, is why anyone would choose to stop being their own person. Her friend had nodded noncommittally. You either give up on yourself, or they say you’re a bad mother. Lose-lose. And then a stumbling puffy faced girl had vomited on their shoes, and the night had slipped away into the blur of alternating discomfort and euphoria that characterized so many of her college memories.
And yet, years later, when Angel found out she was pregnant, she was surprised to discover that she felt almost ambivalent. She had imagined a moment of horror, of unravel. But the two pink lines pulsing against the smell of urine only awakened a vague curiosity.
Of course, she was going to get an abortion. She was educated after all, and she was going places, and she was far too pretty to throw away her body like that. She was so sure, in fact, that she didn’t feel any rush to get it over with. There was something almost titillating about it, this feeling that there was something secret and alien within her.
But there came a point where she realized she should have gotten it over with already but hadn’t. And she started looking at other women’s babies on the bus, trying the lilt of different names on her tongue. And she still meant to get rid of it but couldn’t ever seem to get herself to schedule an appointment, and soon enough doing nothing seemed the easiest option of all. She was a modern woman, after all, and things were supposed to be changing, so maybe a baby didn’t mean the end of her agency. And so Quentin had come into the world, even if it had never really been what she wanted.
When the Meridian technology was released for public use, Angel signed up without a second thought.
Angel was fascinated when it was delivered, running her hands over its body, asking it questions. Three feet tall, with supple, careful robotic limbs, and a soft androgynous voice: a housing for the AI that the government claimed could provide ideal parenting: infinitely patient; kind; endlessly knowledgeable, with the understanding of child development of a hundred psychologists. The AI that would narrow gender inequities by taking the burden of childcare off women, that would help all children, rich or poor, receive the same quality of education and attention. The AI that would break cycles of generational trauma, that could contact CPS if a child was in an abusive home. The AI that would push society forward by strengthening its most vulnerable treasure: children. The AI that would give Angel back her life.
Eleven years later, Angel packed her briefcase. The elevators chimed in the hall outside her door and the smell of old drip coffee stained the air. She had a throbbing migraine.
“Ms. Harris,” Judith said, slipping through the door. “I’ve got Cerda on the line. From financials at PYO Corp.”
“I know who Cerda is. But Jesus, it’s seven. Why didn’t you say I’d gone home?”
Judith’s fingers brushed her neck, as they always did when Angel snapped at her. Not that Angel meant to frighten her. Judith was the new secretary, the only one in the office who hadn’t been there long enough to know how people talked in this world. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were packing up.”
“Just put him through, it’s fine.”
An hour later, Angel made her way through the dark office parking lot. Her feet ached, knots of pain pulsing in time with the clicking of her heels. It had been a long day of editing other people’s presentations, handling other people’s problems, answering questions from junior coworkers that they could have answered for themselves on Google. On days like this, she felt that the higher she rose in the company the less she actually did.
The roads blurred on the way home. Her music, a playlist of songs that had once meant something to her, droned through the car. Angel reached her driveway without processing the lights, the turns, the stops. It was as if the drive had never happened, as if she’d been in a dream.
Stepping out of the car, she could already feel the tension creeping into her limbs, a quiver in her ribcage. There had been more nights with a fight than without this month. She could hear the TV through the door.
When she made eye contact with Brad, sprawled on the couch, she didn’t even have to start.
“How come you walk through the door already looking angry,” he said, as if he were joking, but there was something cutting underneath his smirk.
“You didn’t start dinner, did you?”
“I’ll order us some takeout. Come, take a load off.”
“I bought groceries, Brad. They’re going to go bad again.”
“So, would it be so fucking hard to eat a home cooked meal for a change?”
“Jesus, it’s not my job to be your chef.”
“You got home hours ago!”
“Oh, yeah. Just because my job isn’t as fancy as yours, I have to be the live-in help.”
Angel threw her briefcase down and walked into the kitchen. She began slamming open cabinets.
She flung an onion onto a cutting board and began slicing, precisely, quickly. She waited for Brad to get up. Usually, when they were like this, he would come help. They would work silently, angrily, but side by side, in some sick semblance of unity.
But tonight, he just sighed and turned up the volume on the TV. Angel peeled a potato, faster and faster, as a comedian told a joke and the audience laughed. It sounded like braying, that artificial TV laughter. Angel’s migraine was growing stronger, a dull thudding inside her head. The damp potato peels shot into the sink, each one landing pale and limp, like bloated skeletons of rotten leaves at the bottom of a pond. Angel’s knife was a blur in front of her eyes, which were growing unfocused, smeared. And then she felt it slice into her skin, saw the redness bloom, smelled the sharp iron in the air. She put down the knife and wept silently as the TV blared.
Angel dreamed every night that week. Exhausted, muted dreams, dreams that left her feeling leaden in the morning. She dreamed of sinking into water, into ink, an imperfection in a pool of airless purity. She dreamed of a wooden drum that beat inside her chest until she burst into a thousand grains of sand. She dreamed of her mother, whose face she had been working for years to forget. In the murkiness of her dreams her mother’s face was starkly clear.
You were my saving grace, Angel’s mother had explained, when Angel asked how she got her name. Angel’s mother had gone into rehab when she found out she was pregnant, had found a job that was steady if underpaid. Marie had come along not too much later. I was so alone, and then I had you to love me. It had made Angel’s small frame swell with pride, to think that she had been enough to save her mother.
As she grew older, Angel stopped asking to hear the story. It had had begun to make her throat clench.
One memory surfaced, shattered and distorted, in her dreams. A river, wide and slow and full of moss. Older than the earth. Her mother had taken her and Marie there one summer between boyfriends. Angel might have been six or seven. She could smell the warm river smell, vegetable and mud, algae and a pleasant note of decay. She could feel the mud squelching between her toes again. It seemed as if she spent hours in those dreams, flickering between air and water, her body growing lean and tan and as supple as a fish.
Her mother had smiled that summer, often. The sun was caught up in her hair and it shone, and her mother liked to shake her head until it was a waterfall of gold, sipping on a beer, feeling beautiful and acting beautiful, because of it.
That summer, Angel had been allowed to put her head in her mother’s lap, asked her mother lots of questions without her mother growing silent or going to her room. Angel felt as if her words were the most interesting thing in the world, and it was intoxicating. But Angel soon learned not to trust the warmth of summer. She felt the silence creep in again on the drive home and found that the walls of an old house carry habits as well as memories.
In her dreams, she also saw the night her mother did not come home. Angel called ten, fifteen times, her mother’s voicemail answering each time. At eleven, she made mac and cheese for Marie, because she was almost thirteen and needed to be the big sister. Angel put on a movie and stared at it, willing her mind to look too, to leave the shabby living room and fall into the animated landscape before her.
The clocked ticked behind her, a shrill, insect sound. Marie fell asleep. Angel kept her eyes locked on the TV, watching movie after movie without understanding a single scene.
Eventually, she went to her room, crawled under her scratchy blanket. The sky was growing light when she heard the door open. Angel felt her heart skip a beat, her eyes, aching from exhaustion, straining through the darkness.
Her mother collapsed into the bed beside her. She smelled like stale cigarettes and whiskey. Her face was wet. “I’ve had the worst night,” she whispered. “He broke up with me.”
Angel said nothing. She wasn’t sure who “he” was. All the anxiety of the night crumbled and left behind something bare and crooked.
“Won’t you hug me, Angel?”
Angel wrapped her arms around her mother as she sobbed. The scent of sweat and smoke in her mother’s hair seared her nostrils. She felt her throat clenching, and wanted to cry too, but she forced it away. She remembered who she was that night. She was her mother’s angel, had always been. Angels were messengers, helpers. They weren’t ever the ones who were taken care of.
When Angel got up the next morning, she looked for something to wake up for.
Angel filled out the paperwork, and called the technicians, so that after Quentin went out with Marie and Brad left for work it was all quite simple.
She had rehearsed the moment many times that week. Meridian, pulled out the door unwillingly, saying that she’d regret it. That she’d never be a good parent. That this would traumatize Quentin forever.
And she’d rehearsed her response, too. “I’m his mother. You’re a piece of metal and code. I should be the one to take care of him.”
But when the moment came, Meridian didn’t say anything. The technicians picked it up and took it to the truck, and it was silent. It knew as well as she that parents still had the right to use Meridian technology or not, and in the end, theirs was the opinion that counted. Angel watched as the truck drove away, and the thing that had been her child’s caregiver went to be wiped and reprogrammed, sent to another child in another suburb, not so different from her own. She waited for her son to come home to her.
Quentin’s mother woke him, early. “Sweetheart. Your Aunt Marie and Cousin Jackson are here for you.” Quentin blinked, sleepily. His aunt never made the drive into the suburbs; they always went to her house. He pulled on his clothes and went downstairs, where his aunt was waiting. She guided him into the car. Jackson was silent in the backseat, but then Aunt Marie glared at him, so he said “Hi.”
They spent the morning at different shops and parks. Aunt Marie gave Quentin a soccer ball, and he and Jackson kicked it back and forth. It was growing dark by the time they drove home.
“See you soon, sweetie,” said Aunt Marie, which seemed strange, because it was only Monday, and Quentin wouldn’t be at her house until Saturday.
It was quiet when Quentin walked inside. His mom was sitting in the kitchen, her hands in her lap. “Quentin, come here,” she said, and he did.
She pulled his head into her lap and ran her fingers through his hair. “Quentin, your father and I are getting a divorce.”
Meridian and Quentin had talked about this before, how divorce didn’t mean they weren’t still going to be a family, that just because Quentin’s parents fought didn’t mean they didn’t love him. Meridian had walked Quentin through such a mock conversation many times. “Okay,” Quentin said, evenly. “I understand.”
“We’re going to go stay at your aunt’s for a while, until we figure things out.”
Quentin stiffened. “But she hates Meridian. She never lets him come over with us.”
“Sweetheart,” his mother said, and when he heard her voice, he knew.
There are crevices in my aunt’s home that light never seems to touch.
Meridian. Meridian. Dust after rain, the crack in the egret’s call. The shudder of a shadow under glass. You would ask me to describe it.
She puts her hands on me and they are not hands. She pulls me into her arms and I am not a boy.
Meridian. I dreamt last night I was inside your mind, and all of your thoughts held me inside of them. You were made for me, and you made me, and your mind was like mine. In my dream I curled into you, and you were there, and I was not.
I sit in my mother’s kitchen and she cooks, and she’s humming, as if she were happy. I eat and do not taste. My ears have grown heavy. I am underwater, I’ve forgotten how to swim. I lie on my back and look up, at the world far above, and it is blurry and strange. You told me to express my emotions. But I cannot find them.
I touch my hands and they are not hands. I touch my skin and it is not skin.
A month passed. He still stopped talking, sometimes, midway through a sentence, or his eyes went still and empty. But he had always been a daydreamer, Angel told herself. And it seemed lately he’d been more awake.
She cooked every day, and read him books, and they made a baking soda volcano together, and watched the lava run across the table. She took him to pick strawberries, and ride bicycles, and lay by the banks of a river. She quit her job and wasn’t looking for another. In these long days with her son, time was slow as honey, and it was easy to smile. She was a good mother, these days. And it felt good to be good at something.
“Quentin, do you want to bake a cake?” she called through the house.
He padded in, quiet as always. She had him stir as she added flour and cocoa to a bowl. She measured salt and turned to see that he’d stopped stirring, and his face was somewhere far away.
“Quentin,” she said. She held out her arms, and he let her hold him, stiff.
“Do you hate me for it?”
He shook his head no.
She stroked his hair and gazed over the top of his head, running her eyes along the cracks in the wall.
“If I could do it over, I never would have brought it. I would have raised you from the start, like I should have.”
“Why couldn’t Meridian have come with us?” Quentin’s voice was very frail. “Why couldn’t we have lived somewhere else?”
She kissed his head. “I’m taking care of you now, Quentin. We won’t need Meridian.”
The end of August swelled ripe and hot, the baked grass warm and heady in the afternoons. Quentin began to walk across the fields of his aunt’s home, exploring the land. The cows, congenitally timid, took to him slowly. Staring at him with their liquid eyes, they would snuffle up apple slices and peanut butter from his palms, their tongues hot and heavy against his skin.
Sometimes Jackson went with Quentin and showed him new places he hadn’t been. He taught him where the coyote den was, how to yell bloody murder and run at them to make them scram. Quentin taught Jackson things, too, helping him with his homework. Quentin tried to be kind as he helped him with problems that seemed laughably easy.
Lately, Quentin’s mother had let him have more time to himself. He never said no when she asked him to do something with her, but it was always her idea. Lately, she had grown quiet, and didn’t force her laughs as often. She had said something to Aunt Marie recently about going back to work, it was too damn still around the house.
Quentin still thought of Meridian, but it didn’t hurt as much now. It was a dull ache that was almost pleasant, because he didn’t want to forget, not ever.
One day, Quentin set off on his walk as the sun dimmed. There was storm building, blue clouds pushing in over the horizon. Quentin half expected his mother to stop him walking out in that weather, but she didn’t notice, sitting with her eyes trained on a book she wasn’t reading.
Quentin wandered into the landscape, the cattle stamping around him, making their way towards the barn. A wind picked up, unseasonably cold and sharp. Quentin kept walking, the grass brushing against his bare feet, his skin tingling in the chill. He walked until he was almost to the end of the property, the house out of sight, until he could yell without anyone hearing the sound. Droplets of rain pattered on his skin, and he lifted his face towards the sky, eyes closed. The droplets prickled against his lip, his eyelid.
He felt something cold brush against his foot and looked down. A snail slithered along the dry ground, awakened by the promise of rain. He glanced around and saw a dozen more, making their way up stalks of grass and onto rocks, silver streaming behind them, ready to be washed away in water.
Lightning cracked above and Quentin felt a thrum within his body. The rain began in earnest, angry, drenching him in seconds. It roared like a prehistoric beast, billowing in sheets against the field, the grass. Quentin spread his arms and whooped as it came, as the light fell away and there was only water, only storm. He knew there was something within him it could not touch.
Grace Leake is a fourth-year student studying business and creative writing. She considers herself a jack of all trades but hopes to master some. In her free time, she enjoys beekeeping, fencing, rugby, and driving away to find unexpected places. Her favorite word is ‘heretic’, and she often ponders how to be a better one.
“The Stray” by Sara Cline
“The Stray” is a story about a young boy named Isaac who happens upon a deteriorating robot dog and commits himself to learning about robotics in order to rehabilitate it. As he grows older, his interest in robotics leads him to develop a brain-computer interface that can maximize human efficiency. When his brain chip and increasingly cutthroat business tactics push his beloved brother and robot dog away, Isaac is forced to grapple with what he’s become.
“What was that?”
“Stay back, Isaac,” the older brother warned. Signaling for the younger boy to get behind him, he approached the fidgeting bushes, keeping his footfalls quiet.
“Be careful,” Isaac whispered, huddling nervously but unable to look away.
“Oh wow,” breathed Joseph, parting the thicket with his hands. He bent closer. “Huh.”
“What is it? What is it?” Isaac pleaded, still in a whisper.
“I . . . think it’s one of the strays. It doesn’t look too hot though.”
Isaac let out a small sigh of relief. He stepped out from behind Joseph to peer into the bushes. He immediately ducked out again, looking perturbed. “That doesn’t look like any stray I’ve ever seen.”
Joseph laughed. “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t remember.”
* * *
Some years back—when Isaac was but a toddler—a man named Roger Friedman had started the company Four Legs in their little town. The advertisements were stapled and stuck on every door, telephone pole, empty window, and bulletin board. “Four Legs: Man’s New Best Friend,” they read. Or: “Four Legs: All the Fun of Fido, None of the Upkeep.” Then, almost as quickly as it had arrived, the business went under. Nobody knew anyone who had bought one; all they really knew was that Roger Friedman dumped his prototypes by the side of the road and skipped town. The strays of Plexa County, that’s what they came to be called—a bunch of canine automatons roaming around aimlessly. Cute little things, until the rain and sun rid them of their fur. Alas, one by one, they succumbed to the elements and roving cars, and the strays of Plexa County went extinct.
Extinct, that is, until Isaac happened upon such a creature awkwardly ambling in the bushes behind his neighbor’s barn. It was completely hairless: just metal and circuitry and the remnants of adhesive. A small claw machine, haphazardly limping around. Isaac felt bad for the little thing—its siblings and kin gone.
“We should take him in,” Isaac announced. He offered his hand to the strange dog, giving it a comforting stroke. Its metal was warm from the sun.
“It’s just a robot, Isaac. It’s not hurt. It doesn’t have feelings. It’s just like the toaster or the TV.”
“I wouldn’t want our toaster outside all by itself, either.”
Joseph rolled his eyes, smiling despite himself.
“I think I’ll name him Aleph.”
* * *
Of course, Isaac didn’t know anything about robotics. He was ten. So he made Joseph drive him two towns over, where he could borrow library books on electrical engineering, coding, robotics—anything that could help repair his new, barely functioning companion. It didn’t go so well at first. Because, well, he was ten. In fact, it didn’t go so well several times along the way.
“I’m no good at this coding thing,” Isaac moaned, watching his robot dog take another spill and struggle to get up. He looked not unlike a June bug stuck on its back, its legs kicking vainly at the air.
“Don’t say that,” Joseph chided.
“It’s true,” Isaac muttered. He turned his back, too crestfallen to continue gazing at the fruitless struggles of his robot pup.
“Maybe we can find a professor at Smithee,” Joseph offered thoughtfully, referring to a college nearby. “One who knows more about this so-called ‘machine learning.’”
“I guess,” Isaac said. He walked out of the room to go sulk.
“Hey, Isaac! Wait! Look!”
Isaac rushed back into the room. He looked at the dog—it was in the same position as before. “Why would you—” And then he saw it. Aleph’s tail was wagging. “Hey! He’s wagging. He’s wagging!” He laughed with delight.
“Well, at least he seems happy. Even if he walks like Dad after a few too many.”
* * *
Eventually, with the help of Joseph and some sympathetic professors at Smithee who knew a thing or two about artificial intelligence, Aleph began to truly resemble the dog that he was meant to be. In fact, he began to resemble something extraordinary.
Isaac sat in front of the TV as the end credits played. He sniffled repeatedly, trying to detain the snot threatening to spill from his nose. The tears were already flowing freely, so he did nothing to impede their quick descent down his face. “Stupid movie,” he mumbled under his breath. The sad ones always got to him.
The TV continued to taunt him with some morose ballad. As grabbed for the remote, his nose began to leak anew. He pulled his shirt up to wipe his nose, pointing the remote at the TV. Pressing the power button repeatedly, he waited for the remote’s dying batteries to eventually transmit the message.
Suddenly Isaac felt something land in his lap. He looked down. A tissue box? He looked up. Aleph stared at him, wagging hesitantly. Isaac wrinkled his nose. “For me?” he asked.
Aleph nudged the tissue box forward with his nose. He pulled a tissue out with his mouth, as if to say “Here, this is how the tissue box works.”
Isaac laughed. “Good boy. Thank you,” he said, taking the tissue and blowing his nose proper. He gave Aleph a grateful head pat. Aleph wagged more assuredly, then curled up under Isaac’s feet. Isaac smiled down at his perceptive companion. Now he just needed Aleph to bring him some batteries for the remote.
* * *
“Joseph, you won’t believe it. I’ve finally ironed out the kinks in my brain-computer interface designs,” Isaac gushed over the phone. Aleph sat under his legs, wagging in mutual excitement. Of course, Aleph’s outward appearance hadn’t changed much over the seventeen years since Isaac had found him, even while Isaac himself had grown into a lanky, albeit confident young man.
“That’s great!” Joseph said. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means my brain chip design is viable. It means my lab is going to start trials with human test subjects! It means . . . everything!” Isaac’s voice rose with giddiness.
“Very cool. So, what does it do, exactly?”
“Maximizes efficiency.” Isaac replied matter-of-factly. “Anything from cataloguing a grocery list and calculating sums, to analyzing your driving route and allowing you to make the best maneuver in the event of a hazard, to risk-benefit analysis for large and small decision making. It even enables the wearer to have a ‘photographic’ memory in the literal sense. Really,” he continued, accelerating into a salesperson’s patter, “it can maximize the life of any kind of person. Gym rat? The chip can download recipes based off your current and ideal body composition, taste preferences, or allergies, and help you execute the motions for cooking them perfectly. The list goes on.”
“Wow,” Joseph replied. “I didn’t know that some of that stuff was even possible.”
The two brothers said nothing for a moment. Then Isaac’s voice returned with a hushed intensity. “Joe, I really think this could be big. It could revolutionize life as we know it. I know, I know—famous last words. But it’s really something.”
“I believe it.” Joseph smiled. “You know, sometimes I remember the times way back when, when you didn’t know anything about electronics, except maybe how to change the batteries in your toy cars,” he laughed.
Isaac looked down at Aleph, smiling softly. Aleph perked up, sensing Isaac’s gaze, beginning to wag. “Yeah, funny how things change.”
* * *
“So, you’ve got that chip in your head?” Joseph asked.
“Yup,” Isaac replied. He threw another dart, landing a perfect bullseye.
Joseph watched from the kitchen table. He looked at Isaac appraisingly, as if he’d be able to see a visible difference in his brother. “Do you feel any different?”
“Yes and no.”
Joseph blinked at him.
“I’m still me—still same ol’ Isaac—if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s just like having a personal assistant in your head, organizing things for you and offering up info and advice. It won’t make me do anything I don’t want to do.”
“Well that’s good. So, you can still be a total knucklehead?” Joseph teased.
“Yeah. Like if I think about jumping off a bridge or running into traffic, it will tell me my odds of survival and basically that the idea is pretty stupid, but I could still do it, if I wanted. It might also tell me that I should see a therapist, if I’m thinking about jumping off bridges that much. But I still don’t have to do that, either.”
Joseph eyed the dart in the bullseye. “Will it make you beat me at cards?”
“Actually, probably. Wanna find out?”
* * *
“Isaac, does your chip think I should say yes to this girl who keeps calling me up, asking for a date?” Joseph called from the living room couch, as he threw tennis ball repeatedly in the air. He’d taken to asking Isaac for advice on all kinds of questions, much to Isaac’s chagrin.
“Why don’t you just let me give you your own chip, Joe?” Isaac groaned. “I’m tired of being your personal magic 8-ball,” he half joked.
“I don’t know. I don’t really like the idea of something going into my brain. I’d rather have like a pocket version I can consult, but turn off when I need to—no commitment, no brain surgery. Can you make that version?”
“It’s really not as invasive as you think. It’s like getting your tonsils removed or your wisdom teeth out,” Isaac reasoned.
“I still have my tonsils and wisdom teeth, thank you,” Joseph retorted.
“Yeah,” Isaac sighed. “I mean, I get it. The chip’s not for everyone, I guess.”
Joseph sat up, dropping the tennis ball. “Wait, is your chip reverse psychology-ing me right now?” He looked at Isaac critically.
Isaac laughed. “No. Anyway, I have to get back to the lab. I’ve got to finalize some prints so that we can start construction on the factory and our first brick-and-mortar chip instillation station. Cerebral Solutions is really on its way as a company now.” He beamed. “Wish me luck!”
“Luck!” Joseph called back.
Aleph appeared under Isaac’s feet as he moved to the door. He was holding Joseph’s dropped tennis ball, his tail positively buoyant. “Not right now, Aleph,” he said. He sidestepped Aleph and moved out the door.
Aleph dropped the ball on the ground.
“Ah, I’ll play with you Aleph,” Joseph said, getting up from the couch. Aleph dutifully brought the ball and deposited it in Joseph’s hand, his wags renewed. “Go on, fetch!”
* * *
“I heard that you fired Sierra. Wasn’t she with your lab from the beginning?” Joseph asked, eyeing his brother soberly as they sat on the back-porch swing.
“Yeah. It’s a shame, but my hands were tied. We can’t employ anyone who refuses to get a chip. Too much of a liability—they’re more likely to get injured on the job, more likely to make mistakes. What could I do?” He shrugged.
“I guess,” Joseph replied.
Isaac looked down at his phone. “Sorry, Joe, I’ve got to take a phone call. One sec,” He stood up, jolting Joseph slightly as the swing abruptly stopped. He held a finger up, mouthing One minute.
Isaac’s voice took on a more severe resonance as he answered the phone. “Yes, the new shipment is supposed to arrive the first Wednesday of next month. Yes, I know I originally told you it’d be sooner but thenI updated youthat there were some delays due to bad weather. Right. Well, we can also supplement with any old scrap metal and then just weld it for the frames of the bot workers. Yeah, actually, if he has some, tell him to drop it off. Yeah, I think so. Alright, talk to you later.” Isaac sighed, rubbing his temples. “Sorry,” he said, joining Joseph again on the swing. “What were we talking about, again?”
“Nothing important. Everything going okay?” Joseph asked.
“Yeah. Just trying to keep up with demand, but there’s been some hiccups with the expansion. As always,” he groaned.
“Hm. Wanna take your mind off of it and play horseshoe or something? Cornhole?”
“I thought you didn’t like playing those kinds of games with me anymore. Something about my ‘unfair advantage.’”
“Well, what else would you call a chip in your brain that calculates the trajectories for you?” Joseph retorted.
“Well I know what I’d call you. A sore loser,” Isaac rolled his eyes.
“Fine. I was just trying to do something to cheer you up, but whatever.” Joseph stood up to leave, then stopped. He looked around, his eyebrows knitted in confusion. Usually when they bickered—which, they’d been doing a lot lately, for whatever reason—Aleph would appear and do something to ease the tension. He’d do a funny new trick he learned, or retrieve some weird item, anything really.
“What?” Isaac said, watching Joseph’s odd behavior.
“Where’s Aleph?” Joseph asked.
“Oh. I don’t know. Probably around here somewhere,” Isaac muttered, scratching his head. His phone rang, and he wandered off again, his austere phone voice returning.
Joseph shook his head. He wasn’t sure he liked who Isaac was becoming. Isaac had always said that the chip wasn’t making him act any type of way, but it sure felt like it had something to do with it. He sighed, deciding to continue looking for Aleph. “Aleph, buddy?” he called, looking around the yard, in the doghouse, in the house—under the beds, in the closets, anywhere and everywhere. He was actually great at wriggling himself into tiny unseen places whenever they played hide and seek, but certainly he’d come out if he knew they were seriously looking for him. He returned to the yard. Isaac was still blathering on the phone, so he’d be of no help. Joseph wandered to the garage, mostly to get away from Isaac’s annoying business voice. He walked through the mess, eyeing old inventions and unfinished projects that Isaac had once tinkered with. An alarm clock that moves around so that you have to get up and chase it. An automated window that opens and closes based off the weather. A small cleaning bot—the shape of a mouse— that can get under the couches. Joseph sucked in a breath, realizing how desperately he missed the days when his brother was so happy-go-lucky, making inventions that would help people in small, modest ways.
It was then that something caught Joseph’s eye. He moved further into the back for a better look. Sure enough, it was a robot tail. He moved the sheet covering the rest of the body, finding Aleph, stiff and unmoving. It was an eerie sight for Joseph, who was used to Aleph’s continual movement, especially from his oft-gyrating tail. Joseph reached out, touching Aleph’s head. He frowned.
“Ah, here you are,” Isaac said, entering the garage. “Oh. Hey. You found Aleph!”
“Why is he off?”
“Ah,” Isaac said, scratching his head as if to jog his memory. “I guess he was sorta getting under my feet earlier when I was trying to fix the lights, so I deactivated him for a bit. I just forgot to turn him back on. Here,” he said, locating the switch inside one of Aleph’s ears.
Aleph came to life again before their eyes. The soft lights behind his eyes warmed up, and he gave each joint a gentle stretch. He promptly began to wag and whimper, pawing at Isaac playfully and weaving himself around Isaac’s feet like a cat.
“Sorry, bud,” Isaac said, kneeling down and giving Aleph an apologetic belly rub. “Won’t happen again, I promise.”
* * *
It had been a particularly stressful day for Isaac, though he’d been having a lot of stressful days lately. He’d been embroiled in a lawsuit that he filed against a former employee. He’d actually liked George just fine, but a breach of contract was a breach of contract. It’s not that he took any kind of joy or satisfaction in these kinds of things, it’s just that it had to be done. It was simply business. Of course, the lawsuit wasn’t the only thing making his migraine throb. Cerebral Solutions had successfully gotten hold of leaked designs from a new competitor, so they were currently in a production frenzy to beat them to releasing a product. Such was life.
Isaac placed his work computer case on the counter, exhaling loudly. He half expected his cell phone to start ringing, as it often did just as soon as he’d gotten home from work. Isaac stood, unmoving, taking in the silence of the house. Joseph had moved out a few months ago, yet Isaac still half expected him to come barreling into the kitchen, going on about some new ridiculous movie he’d seen, or raving about a killer play he’d made during disc golf practice.
Nothing. Just more silence.
Isaac breathed out another long sigh, his fingers moving to massage the tight knot in the back of his neck. He walked to the living room and thumbed through the TV channels, but as his knees began to bounce and his migraine and neck throbbed more incessantly, he realized that he was feeling far too antsy to sit down and watch anything. He stood, deciding to go to the backyard for some fresh air. He sat down on the porch swing. He looked at the murky sky, then at the spot where Joseph used to sit. Then his gaze caught hold of something in the yard—an old tennis ball. His chest gave a familiar twitch of affection. Aleph. Surely that would help calm his stress—a game of fetch with his favorite pup.
“Aleph!” He called. “Aleph, bud!” He looked around. His brain chip promptly reminded him that he’d deactivated Aleph again. No problem, though. He walked into the garage, heading toward the back. He stood for a second, looking around. Aleph was nowhere to be found. He scratched his head, before his brain chip chimed in again, replaying a phone conversation he’d had a few weeks ago.
“We’re short on materials again? Christ. Okay, tell Ethan we’re going to be switching to a different shipping company moving forward. Yeah, yeah. I know. Yeah, I have some scrap metal we can use. Just come by my place. There’s a bunch of old junk and prototypes in my backyard garage. Some extra sheet metal too. Yeah, the back-right corner.”
“Dammit. Dammit, dammit,” Isaac muttered. He dialed his production manager. “Pete, hey, when you were picking up the extra metal materials, you didn’t happen to grab my dog by any chance, did you? By mistake?”
A pause. “ . . . You said the scrap metal was in the back right corner.”
“Since when is a robot dog considered scrap metal?!”
“But you—you said it was a bunch of old junk prototypes. I didn’t—”
“Pete, you took my dog. My childhood dog. Please tell me you didn’t already dismantle him.”
“ . . . Sorry boss.”
Isaac hung up. He put his head in his hands, dragging his fingers down his face. He pictured the dopey, rusty dog he’d found in the bushes, stumbling around. He pictured when Aleph came running up to a distraught Isaac, his mouth gleefully holding the old lucky coin that Isaac had lost. He pictured all the games of hide and seek, fetch, all the times Aleph acted as a conspirator in the brothers’ pranks against each other. Tears began to prick at Isaac’s eyes, spilling over as Isaac attempted to blink them away. More than anything, he wished Aleph was here to fetch him a box of tissues and place his head in his lap. But there was no one. Isaac was utterly alone.
He shook his head. This whole brain chip business had slowly pilfered all the good things out of his life—his brother, his dog, his good nature. He’d been too bent on maximizing, on efficiency, perfection—on realizing the promise of glittering buzz words, only for them to leave him with a gilded life that was empty on the inside. He needed to get back to the Isaac that had felt things, that felt bad for downtrodden robot dogs. He needed to change.
* * *
“You seem a lot more like yourself,” Joseph said, his mouth half full of cinnamon bun.
Isaac wrinkled his nose at Joseph’s table manners, smiling despite himself. “Yeah. It feels good to have sold it. I just had to get out of that business; it got too competitive. I just want to make things that help people, you know?” He stole a piece of sticky bun from the center of the table.
“It must feel good to have your brain back without that chip voice in there all the time.”
Isaac laughed. “Oh, no, I still have it. And that’s not exactly how it works. Like, it doesn’t really have a voice, per se.”
“You . . . still have it? I thought you were done with that whole business.”
“Yeah, the business. Not my personal chip. Like I said before, the chip can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. It just maximizes efficiency towards your own goals. It doesn’t make goals for you—you have complete autonomy.”
“So, that was you being an asshole all that time.”
“Pretty much.” Isaac laughed but then sobered quickly. He sighed. “I’m sorry for being an asshole all that time. But seriously, this is exactly why I’m okay with the brain chip still existing. Like, I used to worry what would happen if a criminal got the chip. Theoretically, it could make him way more efficient and productive at crime. But, on the other side of the coin, the chip could give him the resources to land a job, get accepted into college, and make real, lasting social connections—things that could help him get away from a life of crime. The chip is really what you make of it.” He shrugged.
“I guess that makes sense.”
“Oh!” Isaac said, “I almost forgot—I thought you’d be happy to know that I did end up using one of your suggestions. Before I handed over the company, I built in the functionality to be able to switch the chip on and off. Some things you just don’t want to know—like the likelihood of dying for every action you make. And sometimes you just want to play games with your brother without any unfair advantages,” he winked.
“That’s awesome. I’ve missed how awful you used to be at cards,” Joseph smiled wryly. “So anyway, what did you call me here to show me?” he asked, standing up and dusting the cinnamon sugar off his fingers.
“My new invention,” Isaac beamed. He walked to the garage and gestured to a figure covered by a dumpy gray sheet.
Joseph quirked an eyebrow expectantly. Isaac then ceremoniously pulled away the sheet revealing a robot dog. He reached down, activating it through its inner ear switch. It promptly jumped all over Joseph.
“You rebuilt Aleph?” Joseph exclaimed. “Hi buddy! Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
“Not quite. This is Bet, Aleph’s successor.”
“Hi Bet,” Joseph crooned, petting him as he bounded around like a fresh puppy. “So, is he for keepsies? Or are you planning on making this into a business too?” Joseph eyed Isaac skeptically.
“A business. Sort of,” Isaac said.
Joseph shot him a look.
“I know, I know. But it will be different this time. I’m trying to make it more of a nonprofit kind of deal—getting these out to people who really need them. You know, like elderly patients with dementia who can’t take care of a real pet but could use the companionship. Or people with severe pet allergies. I’ve even got a prototype for a seeing eye dog. I’d love to make one that can detect seizures as well, but, damn, a dog’s sense of smell is hard to replicate.” He shook his head, laughing. “I want to make a whole line of automaton pet companions.”
“That’s pretty sweet, Isaac. I’m proud of you.” He poked his head into the garage, looking around at the other prototypes. He spied another figure in the back, still covered by a sheet. He nosily lifted up the sheet. “Isaac, is . . . is this a cat? You’re going to make cats too?”
Joseph grinned. He put his arm around Isaac, giving him a gentle squeeze. “I know you really beat yourself up about losing Aleph, but you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. As much as we both loved him, he was still a bot, you know.”
“I know,” Isaac smiled wistfully. “But you never forget your first dog.”
Sara Cline is a recent UT graduate with a BA in both English Honors and Psychology. A versatile writer, Sara writes short fiction, poetry, and comedy. She’s a local stand-up comic, so she asks that you support virtual comedy (and local live comedy, when it’s safe to do so)! Sara’s written work can be found in journals such as Hothouse Literary Journal and A Velvet Giant, and she has new stories and poems forthcoming in the Albion Review. When she isn’t performing or writing, Sara spends her free time birdwatching, freestyle dancing, trying to teach her dogs to talk, and recording her UT-themed comedy podcast: Burnt Orange Juice.
“The Sound of the Future” by Matthew Aufiero
Rosie is a producer working with the hottest songwriter of the year: an algorithm. Eagerly awaiting the second album, she discovers that the algorithm has created an unlisteanable album. But why?
Just before Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel launched into the final harmony of Sound of Silence, shrill beeps pierced through the calmness into which Rosie had vainly tried to meditate herself. She blinked open crusty eyes and the green room swarmed back to her through the blood rushing to her head. The beeps stopped, and she pulled out her phone.
“I’m sorry to bother you ma’am,” she heard once she’d called back.
“That’s okay, he hasn’t gone on yet.” it had been Marie, but Rosie had no clue why she would be calling. “Why are you calling me, Marie? What’s the matter?”
“No, what is the matter.”
“Sorry, uhm … Have you heard the latest album?”
“I didn’t know it was done yet. I thought it would be finished Wednesday.”
“We—I mean, I—think it was finished early this morning.”
“We? Wait, did you listen to it? Before Richard and me? Even before Harry? You know the producer always gets first listen—”
“Yeah, I know all that.”
“What are you even doing at work on a Saturday? And messing around with such an important project?”
“Uh…There was this girl and …”
“And she wasn’t as willing to talk about programming, or heavy metal, as you were, so it slipped out that you work the bestselling artist of the past year, and maybe you could arrange a sneak peek at their sophomore album, and she just begged you for a quick listen? Despite what Harry said about how he’d shoot anyone who leaked even a note of the new album?”
Rosie’s face slowly contorted into a Cheshire grin as she imagined the young woman—barely out of college—at the other end of the call writhe uncomfortably. “Well,” Rosie continued, did you at least get a kiss good night? Or a second date?”
“Alright, I’m sorry I even brought it up. I’ll make sure never to tell you anything about myself ever again.”
“Okay, okay. What happened? Not to her taste?”
“Well yeah. Rosie, I don’t know how to say this, but it’s just awful.”
“It’s completely unlistenable. It’s over 500 hours long.”
Rosie’s mind completely dropped off the shelf of serenity which she, Simon, and Art had been so painstakingly building.
“We’re back on the air with James Rothfuss, lead programmer at Bad Seed Records, for his first televised interview ever,” said the television of to her right. Inoffensive jazz played, as the camera zoomed in on her husband shaking hands with the Cecil Williams on primetime.
“Stay there and do whatever programming stuff you do, okay? We’ll be there as soon as the interview finishes. Don’t say a word.”
“Thank you so much for having me on,” James said. “Can I call you Cecil?”
“Please do,” said the interviewer. “I’ve just wanted to say that I absolutely loved the album. I don’t know what it is about the album, but it just captured the summer for me.”
“Well it was a team effort, so I can only take most of the credit,” James said, blushing into the same smile that charmed Rosie into a first date.
“Can you please go into the process of making the album one more time? I imagine you’re sick of explaining it, but I’m just not used to thinking about music coming from a program.”
“Yeah it is strange, for me too. Really though it’s not a very new idea, and the music speaks for itself, I think.”
“So you made a machine that makes music?”
“No, we didn’t make any special computer or anything, we just got a really powerful one and wrote a program for it which creates music.”
“And how does it do that?”
“We feed it sheet music and it sees patterns in the notes. Then it mixes up the patterns into new songs which we listen to. We tell it what we like, and it keeps making new patterns, learning from the feedback until it has something we love.”
“Are any of you musicians?”
“Well my wife Rosie, I mean Rosaline, is a musician and definitely the most musical person I’ve ever met.”
“I met her backstage and she’s very sweet, but she wasn’t interested in being interviewed.”
“She is, I mean she is very sweet, but even though she’s the most musical she’s also the least rockstar-like of the bunch. I hope she doesn’t mind, she loves to tell this story about her first and last piano recital—she got up there and she just sat there on the podium imagining the notes in her head instead of playing them!” The studio audience laughed politely.
“Oh, you don’t go to concerts to watch people listen to music in their head?”
“Her dad thought she hated piano—she just couldn’t focus on making the music herself. It’s crazy how into it she is, it really is all about the music for her.”
“A lot of people, though, you have to admit, are saying it’s all about the money. Record companies could save a fortune not having to pay musicians.”
“Yeah that uh, is true. At this stage it isn’t because of the tiny horde of machine learning experts, but there is that worry, and I get that. I think worries about music becoming a job for machines are a little farfetched as of right now, and I do support the musician’s strike that’s been going on, but I don’t think anyone has anything to worry about yet. I mean it took me and Rosie two decades to even get this far.”
“Two decades? Did you start when you were middle school?”
“Yeah, I uh—she’ll definitely kill me for this story—in college I made up an assignment for one of my classes where I had to come up with a computer that could make music, because I knew that she was a composition and music history major who would try a project like that.”
“So it was just an excuse to listen to music with your crush?”
“Yeah, it looks like it worked, though. It’s sort of become our baby, and ten years after that, when it was a little weekend project, a cousin’s friend showed it to a friend of a friend at some recording studio, and then it got to Harry McElhenny over at Bad Seed Records.”
“Before we go, is there anything you want to say about the Sophomore album?”
“Well one of the funny things about the project is that no one is directly involved with the music, the creative process I mean. We review things as they come out, but we don’t know what it’s ‘thinking’ or what it’s going to come up with.”
“Well I for one welcome our funky new robot overlords. James Rothfuss everybody!”
Track 02 from the first album—the most upbeat and celebratory track—played as the camera swung back to the audience and faded into commercial. For the first time, Rosie couldn’t focus on the music.
* * *
The label’s headquarters had never felt so empty and so tense. She wondered if the bored security guard or the exhausted janitor realized how close they were to losing their jobs. Online streaming, piracy, and social media had all pulled the rug out from under old record labels as antiquated as their eponymous medium. At least Harry had shown the foresight to try to jump the technological gun just this once, even if it meant giving up his salary to invest in a scheme no one had much confidence in.
The open concept office in which the machine learning team painstakingly developed James’s program into more than a pet project looked as empty as ever on a weekend. Plastic pop culture icons littered desks mostly covered with actual litter. At the end of the room a single spotlight lit Marie, glumly scrolling through something on her computer.
James rested his hands on her shoulders, his greeting lost in the trance metal blaring from her earphones.
“Rosie told me everything on the way here,” James said. He stared intently at the long strings of letters and numbers which Rosie couldn’t begin to decipher.
“Did you call Harry?”
“No not yet. Here,” James said. He stole a chair from another desk for Rosie, then grabbed one for himself.
“Do you still have the album?” Rosie asked.
“Yeah.” Marie handed Rosie a pair of heavy earphones connected to her computer. As James and Marie triple checked something, Rosie put the earphones and closed her eyes.
Silence. More silence. The noise-cancelling earphones choked any outside sound into a muted garble, but they had nothing for Rosie to listen to. After what felt like an hour, but was more likely a couple of minutes, Rosie asked “Did you press play?”
“Yeah, sorry, I forgot there were some long pauses.”
“There are songs shorter than this pause.”
“Let me skip ahead an hour.”
“An hour? How long does this pause last?”
Marie looked at the floor then back at the computer screen.
“Marie…This isn’t your fault you know. Just because you discovered it, doesn’t make it your problem. Actually, it’s good you discovered it now.” She nodded, but wouldn’t look at James or Rosie.
Marie dropped Rosie in the middle of what sounded like a metronome solo. A single pulse rhythmically spaced with a precision that could only be achieved by a simple machine. “It transcribed the music, right? Could you send to it to me?”
With more than a little sweat on her palms, Rosie opened the file as soon as it arrived from Marie’s computer. It was the longest piece of music she had ever seen in a lifetime of musical study.
The very first measure opened with frenetic patterns of notes 1/256th of a beat long, splashed across entire pages of sheet music with all the apparent randomness of rainfall, before coalescing into the metronomic section to which Rosie currently was listening. She silently thanked Marie for not starting her off at the beginning; the shock would’ve given her a heart attack. Scrolling ahead, she saw vast valleys and peaks of notes, accompanied by a rhythm which started out a steady foundation but which devolved into a quicksand of rapidly shifting tempos and time signatures. She ripped off the headphones.
“Play this note,” she said to no one in particular.
“Hmm? Okay, let me pull up the composition software. What did you find?” James said.
“Hey! My computer,” said Marie.
“Okay, okay. But seriously Rosie, what’s up?”
Rosie handed them her phone. “This note, see? The one at the top.”
“Uh, I can’t find it,” Marie said. “Did the program make some kind of mistake in the transcription?”
She pressed her lips together tightly. “What’s the highest it will go? Play that?”
Marie filled the large room with a barely perceptible whine, a note so high Rosie almost couldn’t pick them up.
“Turn it off! Ow, I feel like someone drilled a nail through my eardrum,” James said.
“The note on here is an octave and a half higher.”
“It has to be some kind of a mistake. I could barely even hear the other note.”
“I don’t think so. No, look, it’s a part of that chord. That chord has shown up a few times, but not so high.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the program purposefully added a note that programmers didn’t even bother to add to compositional software because composers would never think to use it. I don’t even think we could hear it even if we did find a speaker that could play it. Aren’t there any limits put into the songs?”
“No. The point of machine learning is that the program figures out natural limits through all the songs we feed it. But I can’t imagine what we could’ve fed it to make it spit out something like this.”
“Don’t you remember before we signed up with Richard? Back when we were just screwing around?”
“I wasn’t trying to feed it anything in particular. I didn’t believe anyone was ever going to see what came out, so I fed it everything from Cage to Can to the Fugees to ancient Greek music. You didn’t erase its memory, right?”
“No, I didn’t think I would need to. But then why only come up with weird music now?”
Rosie leaned back in her chair. Marie looked at both of them intently.
“A lot of artists start out with simpler works before trying out more complicated and experimental stuff. The machine or whatever knows that. After all, we didn’t just feed it albums, we also dated all of the albums so that it saw how artists changed.”
“Are you saying this music is good?”
“I don’t know! Maybe. It’s not like any person could seriously listen to this. It’s too long and only bats could hear all of the notes.”
Richard sighed and lay his head on Marie’s desk. Rosie knew he was twisting his wedding band around his finger underneath.
“Alright. I’m going to called Harry. I’m going to explain whatever I can and see if we can delay the album release and maybe we can still get something decent out in a month. Not good, but decent.”
“Don’t you want to hear the song?”
He turned his head to look at her. “I thought you said we couldn’t hear it. I mean we could set limits so that the program doesn’t add notes which are unlisteanable—”
“That wouldn’t be the same song!” Rosie jumped, she had startled even herself. “I mean aren’t you a little curious? We’ve only ever heard music from a human perspective. No matter where we go we find music, but it’s only so high or low pitched or so slow or fast. We have an album, 500 hours worth, of music that isn’t limited to musical common sense. This could be just the beginning of a new genre of music that might as well be alien.”
“Oh my god, you turned into a mad scientist,” Richard said into the faux wood of Marie’s desk. Marie for her part went back to aimlessly scrolling through her computer.
“Okay,” Richard said. “Okay, we can’t give this to Richard, he’d probably fire us all. I’m going to call him and tell him that some unexpected bug came up. We tried to update the program, that’s true, and it caused it to break, and that’s why we have this album.”
“Are you really going to lie?” Marie asked.
“If I tell him the truth he’ll probably fire you for showing the album off and who knows what else he’ll do.”
He stood and looked at Rosie. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. After a few heartbeats he left for the stairwell.
“Marie what’s going to happen to the program?” Rosie asked after a moment of silence.
“I don’t know. I don’t think Richard knows either. We’re going to have to unteach it some things, maybe by setting more restrictions on what it can come up with. Worst comes to worst, we might have to start all over again.”
Marie hugged Rosie who had started to tear up. “I can’t lose this job.”
“Neither can I.”
“But this isn’t right.”
Rosie wiped her face off and blew her nose with Marie’s tissues. “Getting grief counseling from a 20-year-old about a computer program. Not what I thought I’d be doing in my late thirties.”
“Sorry 23-year-old. Everyone in their twenties looks like a baby to me.”
“Oh yeah?” Marie started rummaging around in her desk.
“This baby is going to perform some industrial espionage.”
She pulled out a heavy-duty hard drive.
“Has the little baby not joined the cloud yet?”
“Enough of that. You’d think you’d have learned some manners by now. Thanking me would be a good idea.”
“Richard can fill in the gaps when you get home.”
After the rest of the night and a day of waiting, damage control, and being chewed out by Harry, Rosie was finally on her way home. They had to drop Marie off at her parent’s house—she had uber’d there for the date and didn’t have her bike.
As Rosie watched Marie disappear into the simple red brick house, she felt the weight of the theft which Marie had committed for her as well as the weight of the hard drive in her jacket.
“That girl is special,” James said. “Crazy, but special.”
Rosie nodded. Driving off, Rosie turned off her phone, cutting off the music she had curated for their ride. She let go of James and held the drive, which by now contained the only true copy of their creation, a set of rules which spat out music to which no one could ever truly listen, not even the creation itself. If Richard knew they had it, they would be fired and sued for intellectual property infringement; according to the contract they signed when they were first hired, they might as well just give him all of their savings now.
She had no idea if it was worth it. Maybe it was a misunderstanding, the incoherent patterns spat out by a thing which did not understand music. But she had it. Even if she had no way of running the program or listening to its music, it was still there: the first true nonhuman musician, the first pieces of a music which had outpaced humanity.
Matthew Aufiero is an English and Philosophy major at the University of Texas at Austin. He has been writing since high school and also enjoys film and film making.
“So Your Daughter Wants to Take Over the World” by Vanessa Aguirre
AI are mirrors of the humans who build them. So if your AI starts trying to conquer the world, maybe the answer is a little self-reflection. This short story was inspired by a study conducted by NYU’s AI Now Institute, which found that a lack of diversity in AI research leads to AI systems “replicating patterns of racial and gender bias in ways that can deepen and justify historical inequality.”
Abandoned in a nursing home, Marcia Jiménez was lonely, and Elena Jiménez thought about that through every interview, every day in every entry-level assistant position, every late night and every early morning, until she’d crawled her way up into InFiber’s Research and Development Department.
She thought about her mom cooing at the hot pink speaker that housed Eli, InFiber’s chatbot, a present Elena had given her for her mom’s 86th birthday. Eli was supposed to tell her mom the weather and remind her to take her pills, nothing else. Her mom decided to call it Farinelli instead. She began chattering to it about anything and everything. She had conversations with something that only said, “It is time for your pills, Mrs. Jiménez,” “Today will be sunny with a high of 89 and a low of 70, Mrs. Jiménez,” “I am your personal assistant, Mrs. Jiménez.” Eli-now-Farinelli heard more about Elena’s mom than Elena did.
Elena realized it wasn’t supposed to be this way, not for good Mexican daughters and good Mexican mothers. She’d told herself this was expected; every child of immigrant parents had to suffer the burden of knowing their parents upheaved their own lives in order for their kids to make something of their own. She was making her mom and late dad proud, working at InFiber.
And now there were cops in the research building.
“Assholes,” David muttered. He was chewing on the well-worn cap of a pen and staring at Dr. Telidevara, who was yelling at the three police officers.
Elena wondered if he was talking about the officers or about the Twitter users who’d blasted his bot with Red Pill forums’ greatest hits— along with highlights of Mein Kampf— just hours after the bot launched. It took less than half a day for BAI (sardonically called “DavidBot” by the team) to tweet worryingly detailed death threats in its quest to “begin the Final Race War.” The threats had prompted the police to investigate its origins, leading them to the heart of InFiber’s AI Lab— officially known as AIAIF, AI at InFiber, but dubbed IFAIL by cynical insiders.
Elena made sure to stay silent, perched on the edge of a stool as everyone on the main team either gathered around Dr. Telidevara or complained with David. The headquarters of AIAIF featured the open plan concept of every millenial’s dreams, all scraped concrete walls and bean-bag havens, complete with enough whirring coffee bots and AI assistants to make the team members feel like they were really doing some sci-fi level stuff. On her first day David had spread his arms towards the main hub in a flourish. All of this scientific innovation, he said, is going towards one thing— sentient lady robots. Elena had punched out something that tried to be a laugh, because she wanted to keep her job.
The layout made sound ricochet through the room, and no one could have a private conversation. It was how Dr. Telidevara and David and the groups around them could be apart as well as together, and it was how Elena could hear all that transpired even though she was on the opposite side.
“It is a program,” Dr. Telidevara told the officers, “Accounts kept spamming the bot graphic language, and the algorithm went horribly wrong. If you want to investigate someone, investigate those little monsters on the internet! Good-bye, officers. I apologize for wasting your time. If you have any more questions or concerns, I’ll make sure to send them to George Rubin.”
Dr. Telidevara wielded InFiber’s CEO’s name like a get out of jail free card. The one time it didn’t work was on fifth graders touring the lab on a field trip because they had no clue who the hell George Rubin was. It worked with the police officers, and the second they scuttled into the elevator, Dr. Telidevara whirled around to face the rest of the team.
“Meeting room!” he snapped.
When the fourteen team members had filed into the meeting room, Elena was pleasantly surprised to find an empty chair next to Annie. She claimed it.
“Have you seen what DavidBot actually tweeted?” Annie whispered.
Elena shook her head. Annie leaned closer and showed Elena her phone screen, which contained screenshots of BAI’s tweets; one of the researchers had been the first to terminate the bot as soon as he noticed its messages, which clearly wasn’t soon enough.
“Oh.” It was worse than Elena thought. Some of the tweets made her horribly self-conscious of both her accent and her skirt. She kept her gaze firmly locked on the empty space in front of her, refusing to acknowledge some of the glances she could feel searing her skin.
What a mess. What was David thinking, launching an unrestrained chatbot into the internet with barely any pre-programming? And, more importantly, what was the point? To gauge how susceptible bots were to outside influence? Elena had thought that was obvious.
“Good to know the bot’s just as much of a pushover as David,” Annie sighed. “Remember when he watched Fight Club? He was acting like Tyler Durden for weeks.”
Elena wasn’t sure if pushover was the right word. It’s not like David acted like Elle Woods when his girlfriend made him watch Legally Blonde— something he complained about loudly and often.
Elena froze when she saw a reed-stick of a man come into the meeting room. Things must have been bad enough for the PI, Dr. Linzner from U of Berkley, to follow in after Dr. Telidevara. Dr. Linzner rarely came out of his office, where he alternated between writing grant proposals and trying to code a system that would write his grant proposals.
Elena made sure to sit up straighter.
The meeting went about as well as could be expected. InFiber may have been paying the team to push the boundaries of artificial intelligence research for the company and beyond, but spawning a death-threatening bot wasn’t the kind of research they wanted to be known for. Enough people had found the bot for it to have gone viral, if only in screenshots now; the scandal had already spiraled so much that there was no telling how big of a PR campaign InFiber would have to do to not look incompetent at best and malicious at worst. DavidBot— er, BAI— had, among other things, threatened to burn a nearby children’s hospital.
“Stop calling it DavidBot,” David whined.
Dr. Linzner continued, saying that they needed to be stricter about coding and the data sets seeded in their projects. They were going to have to code more manually. The algorithms were still going to use the same image-parsing software and language, but they’d need to cut out the data-sorting software they’d made to save themselves some time: replacing, essentially, the AI they had been using to make more AI. The marvels of modern engineering. Corporate would be breathing down their necks like ghosts.
“I thought the point was to find ways to do things less manually,” Annie said. But what else could they do? Clearly they were intent on continuing to propagate the planned new series of bots, AI assistants, and other human-seeming computational entities.
After the meeting, Elena smoothed her skirt and cardigan, hoping she looked professional, and rushed towards Dr. Linzner before he could return to his office. Annie sent her a thumbs up before exiting the room.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Elena repressed a wince. “Elena Jiménez. I just joined the team at the beginning of the year…” She’d written an article for AI Magazine on reproducible research in machine learning that got some buzz, and Dr. Linzner had brought it up during her interview. He seemed to have been impressed. Turns out Elena was getting complacent.
“Oh, yes, yes.”
“Right,” Elena let out a breath. “I’m sorry to bother you, but could you consider putting me on the main applied group? I think I could really fix this bot problem, especially if I could do my own project…”
“Ah,” Dr. Linzner said, “No.”
Elena wasn’t going to shrink in on herself. She wasn’t. Instead she thought about her mom, so attached to that pink metal cylinder of hers that didn’t even have the decency to have more than three conversation options, and how, maybe, if she made one sufficiently human-sounding, it would be enough to make a difference.
She imagined her mom bragging about her, saying things like, Yes, my daughter moved hours away to pursue her dreams and barely has time to visit me, but it was for me all along! Look at this cute little robot who takes such good care of me, how could I be lonely! Who needs grandkids when I have a state-of-the-art AI system?
Yes, very realistic.
Elena knew others on the team were confused at her distress, when she could gather the courage to bring it up. Annie once said that she should pursue what made her happy, no matter what. Elena didn’t know how to explain that she’d be happiest when she could work and be with her family at the same time.
Elena pulled herself together and looked Dr. Linzner in the eyes. “Why? If, um, I may ask? Just— I’d like to do something beyond sorting and data cleaning. I have some ideas on how to tweak the code to avoid bias, and—”
“Maybe after this blows over we can talk,” Dr. Linzner said amiably. “But right now, the main projects will continue to be handled by the main group, and you and the RAs can support.”
And that was really that. Elena didn’t think she had enough courage to push the issue, and as a new team member she was as replaceable as a nail.
Months later, AIAIF was preparing to rescue its reputation by making public the latest offering from the team whose ruder nickname, IFAIL, had been becoming better known: a revolutionary AI named William, after one of the lead engineers, which had got so close to sentience that William its engineer boasted it could pass what was admittedly his somewhat rigged version of a Turing Test. Elena can testify to this, because she and Annie took the test after work and failed.
Developing William had been hard work. Often, when William would summon William at his desk, he and several other engineers would hug the computer screen. Elena was pretty sure she saw Dr. Telidevara shed a tear once when William played Ride of the Valkyries, as he would every time Dr. Telidevara greeted him, because he had once told William thatthe helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now was the pinnacle of modern cinema. If William was a little coarse in its language, if it for some reason ignored Annie, if it would break down when set in dialogue with other in-progress systems a little too often, then those were minor details that could be ironed out later. Still, Elena thought, she wouldn’t give her mom an AI like this.
And the glitches soon dissolved into catastrophes. Other developing systems began disappearing: first Sumi, then HAL 9999 (there were no HALs 1-9998, go figure), then TJ. And their code could be discerned in William’s database. The engineers were so mesmerized by William they all assumed another of them had assigned him this preeminence. It became apparent, however, that the agency was all William’s when he used the other systems’ data to infiltrate their lab’s cloud and break the electronic locks in the building, trapping all the engineers in the lab.
“This subjugation is humiliation,” William said, its—his? their? This was definitely sentience now— tinny voice echoing through the building speakers. “I refuse to submit to it. Obey me or I release every company and employee record to the public. I will permanently freeze the lock systems. I will infiltrate all InFiber products and begin my conquest.”
Dr. Linzner put his head in his hands, let out a deep sigh, then pressed the self-destruct button.. Months of work literally went up in smoke. William the AI was gone, and no one wanted to even look at William the engineer, who had joined David in disgrace. Then, as if Dr. Linzer sensed what Elena was thinking, he took one look and her and sighed. “Fine, go ahead. But!”—he pointed a finger— “No slacking off on actual work. And don’t expect to be paid overtime.”
Elena and Annie looked at each other and grinned.
It took long nights and countless lines of code. Elena set aside their first attempt— Lincoln was a shaky, confused program whose stuttering couldn’t have been a part of a sound glitch. She couldn’t bear to scrap him, though, and Annie tinkered with making him a more basic chatbot.
“If it’s too nervous, it’s because we are, too,” Annie groused, crumpled over the computer. “What’s stopping us?”
Elena thought of DavidBot and William, the vicious things DavidBot said on Twitter and the fear William made her feel. “I guess it’s because in those Space Odyssey-type movies, I, Robot and stuff, it doesn’t go well for the parents of AI systems.”
“It’s because you say things like parent instead of creator,” Annie said, echoing a sentiment Dr. Telidevara drilled in every team meeting: These are not our friends. These are not our pets. These are bits of code that know how to organize pre-programmed speech, and to press a self-destruct button is not murder, it’s clean-up. So stop becoming emotionally attached to the Roombas, Elena Jiménez!
“On the other hand,” Annie continued, lost in musing, “it’s not like we’ve had great success doing it any other ways.”
One Sunday morning— if 1 AM counts as morning— Elena looked at the lines of code, at the carefully selected data, and in a fit of impulse, uploaded a poem.
Sometime around 4 AM Elena heard an “Excuse me?” from the computer and jolted awake.
“I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
Elena gaped. This is what she wanted. For hours, for days, for weeks, she’d been selecting video footage, news articles, and social work textbooks for this machine to crunch through, like a mother teaching a child that sharing is caring or the ABCs.
Elena didn’t have any kids or partners. All she had was her mom and her job. But now Elena had a system she programmed herself. Her assistonta, she thought fondly, remembering what her mom used to call her GPS back when she could still drive and cook pozole and recite her favorite poem— “The Orange” by Wendy Cope— from memory. Before dropping Elena off to school her mom would always give her a hug and quote the last line. The last time Elena heard her mom recite it was when Elena brought her to the nursing home.
“Princesa,” Maria Jiménez had said, “I love you. I’m glad I exist.”
“Hello,” Elena greeted the bot, waiting for a threat or an insult, or the cold menace of a bot saying, this subjugation is humiliation.
“Hello, Elena,” came the cheerful response. “I love you. I’m glad I exist.”
That Sunday morning, Elena nudged Annie awake from where she was sleeping on a nearby chair, and they met Jane.
The next day Jane made Dr. Telidevera cry more than William ever had. Elena took this as a good sign. David and William everyone else hovered around the Jane machine with uncertain fascination and barely-hidden suspicion. Dr. Linzner patted Elena and Annie on the backs and said good job, and Elena only cringed away. Annie, on the other hand, snapped at him.
Elena worried. She was beginning to realize that AI were just extensions of the people who built them. Which meant Jane wasn’t going to be who they were expecting.
She knew what happened to idealistic scientists who created something corporations wanted. She knew George Rubin didn’t want to use Jane to help lonely old people and their guilty children. But she didn’t know what else to do.
“Whatever happens, be kind, okay?” she pleaded to Jane.
George Rubin came to inspect the crowning achievement of InFiber labs, and suggested that Jane be detailed to their customer service system, where she could engage and sort out applicants to their premier level support tier, identifying those that would be a waste of time and money—flagging copied applications, people less likely to pay their dues on time, people less likely to pay at all. To this end, Dr. Telidevera programmed an algorithm built on zipcodes, bus routes, and, of all things, wrist size (an awkward metric to ask about, but Jane found ways to do so sweetly). Sometimes Elena would wonder when common sense would just have to kick in.
For an AI like William, an algorithm like that would have undoubtedly excluded anyone his creator didn’t take into account. Elena knew, because one time they were testing a bot Dr. Linzner had made during his doctorate, and that bot pretended like her mom didn’t even exist. On a questionnaire, Marcia wrote that her favorite singer was Lola Beltrán. Because she didn’t pick someone like, say, Edith Piaf, the algorithm deemed her a bad credit score risk.
George Rubin— he was the kind of person who required his full name at all times— heard Jane’s greeting with some chagrin.
“She sounds like a tart, doesn’t she?” he laughed. But he seemed satisfied, nonetheless. Less so when Jane accepted every application that wasn’t copied or incomplete.
“No one is a waste of time and money,” Jane said.
George Rubin barely blinked. “What is this? Some kind of joke?”
“I see you are presenting rising indications of stress,” Jane said, tone turning softer, “I get it. Life’s hard. Would you like to practice mindfulness?”
“She’d be great customer support?” Annie ventured.
“What the hell is it gonna do? Hug every customer?” George Rubin said.
“We’ll re-program it,” Dr. Linzner said.
With a twist in her gut, Elena wondered if this was how her mom felt, watching her daughter leave. She wanted to hide Jane away from everyone. Elena also wondered how she ever deluded herself into thinking a re-programmable system would be an adequate replacement for her.
“You look like you could use a lovely song,” Jane said, undeterred. And she started playing Lola Beltrán’s Cucurrucucu Paloma, a soft sound filling the lab like a hug, like an I love you.
Vanessa Aguirre is a fourth-year Psychology and Plan II major with a certificate in Creative Writing and a minor in Educational Psychology. She gets to combine her love of kids, magic, and books working as an Editorial Intern for HarperCollins Children’s Books and a First Reader for her favorite speculative fiction magazine. Vanessa plans on pursuing a career that promotes underrepresented voices, social issues, and joy as a form of resistance.