NYC Midnight – Round One

In January, I decided to try my hand at writing a short story for a contest. Limited by time, genre and inspiration, and word count, this particular contest challenged me in several unexpected ways.

You can learn more about the contest here: http://www.nycmidnight.com/Competitions/SSC/Challenge.htm

I was given three prompts: my genre had to be Sci-Fi, and the story needed to include summer school and a fork lift driver. I was given one week to write my story, and it wasn’t allowed to surpass 2500 words (about half of a typical YA chapter, for reference).

While my story didn’t make the top five in my heat, I’m quite pleased with what I wrote and I’m happy to share it with you! If you like it too, share it with someone you think would enjoy it, and give me a follow on Instagram (@thatchandrafisher) or Twitter (@MamaMinnow).

Title: Affecting Eternity

Synopsis: ‘A teacher affects eternity; she can never tell where her influence stops.’ In a dystopian future where AI can enslave human hosts, a young teacher strives to make a difference for a group of displaced teens.

***

Julia would teach kids this summer whether Adam helped her or not.

They’d come to Westward Hold in April. It was June now. So many had fled Calgary; there wasn’t a full classroom of students left to teach there. Adam and Julia had escaped to the nearest safe-haven to avoid infection.

They were in Walmart this morning. Eventually the uninfected contingent living here would need a long-term food solution, but for now there were plenty of non-perishables in the empty stores in the abandoned town of Olds.

Adam tossed a goldfish cracker up and caught it between his teeth, ‘I played games like Fallout where shit-hole settlements are called Novac because of a trashed No Vacancy sign… never thought I’d be living in a place with that same back story.’

            A small group of young guys had started the safe-haven in Westward Hold. Julia easily imagined them stopping at Westward Ho, stealing the sign, and continuing on to Olds.

            ‘They probably played Fallout too, dummy,’ she joked. ‘That’s where they got the idea. You can drive a forklift, right?’

            ‘What, like it’s hard?’ replied Adam.

            Julia punched his shoulder. ‘I need you to move those big desk boxes to the Home section. I’ll set them up, but I’m scared to drive the forklift.’

            Adam rolled his eyes. ‘You’re really gonna do this?’

            Julia nodded. She believed the youth who were displaced by the zAI revolution desperately needed an island of calm and normalcy amidst the sea of robotic work drones they’d fled.

            ‘It’s not worth it Jules. They’re gonna shut you down. The school system indoctrinated the work ethic that inspired zAI, you think they’re gonna let you start that all over again?’

            Julia sighed. They’d had this fight daily for eight weeks, but she wasn’t going to give it up. She lived to teach, and she didn’t care if it was summer, she knew she had something to offer the displaced youth in Westward Hold.

            ‘The school system didn’t do this, Adam. Corporate greed did this. Shitty programming did this. Human dopamine did this. Blame whatever you want but it wasn’t schools.’

            ‘Maybe, but schools are where that all starts.’

            She shook her head. ‘Schools can be lovely too.’

            Adam shrugged. ‘Not in my experience.’

            ‘This won’t be like that, Adam. Please. Please drive the fucking desks to the Home section for me. And then you can walk away. But I need to do this.’

            Adam couldn’t watch his best friend beg. He drove the desks over. And he couldn’t walk away either. He had nothing to walk away to. All afternoon they set up desks. People entering and leaving the Walmart glanced their way but didn’t stop to question.

            Julia took a poster board and a pack of Sharpies from the shelf and wrote ‘Summer School is in Session’ in rainbow bubble letters. She taped it to the front of a desk, and she sat there every day in June.

            It was July third when a group of teens finally straggled in to ask what it was about, and from there the group grew. They even met on weekends, because there was nothing else to do in Westward Hold, and it was nicer to sit with a group of peers and talk about school than it was to do anything else in this dystopian shit-hole.

            Some of Julia’s students learned quickly and some less so. With kids ranging in age from thirteen to seventeen, her skills were stretched to the limit, and she was grateful that Adam had decided to stick around and help. He was a quick study, and she didn’t understand why he hadn’t completed high school.

            Two weeks later, Steven wandered in. His basic skills were so lacking that Julia was stymied.

            ‘He’s so far behind, he can barely read,’ she told Adam after class.

            ‘So teach him to read,’ he said. ‘Who cares what you’re teaching them? That was never the point anyways.’

            Julia considered. That night she printed out pages of news articles on the zAI revolution.

            ‘If he’s gonna learn to read he may as well be reading something relevant,’ she said.

            Adam couldn’t disagree.

            The next morning, she handed Steven the pages and said, ‘This is thick reading, but you can sound out the words and Adam can help if you need.’

            It was slow, painstaking work to listen to Steven, but he read out loud with assistance from Adam all morning:

The zAI revolution began with the advent of injectable artificial intelligence (iAI for short); tiny robots charged by electromagnetic pulses of the human heartbeat. They were injected to improve mental stamina, reduce sleep requirements, and increase learning speed.

Big oil companies invested first in iAI. They’d always dabbled in the grey areas of labor laws, and were willing to do anything to get a business edge.

It seemed like this was the next leap in human evolution. Workplaces were revolutionized. People worked longer hours with fewer breaks and completed more work at better quality than ever. Productivity skyrocketed; innovation and creativity were at an all time high.

Adam interrupted. ‘This doesn’t mention the impact on the economy. The iAI boom was the next dot-com bubble, next bitcoin, next Nigerian prince in your inbox. Companies who invested early in iAI dominated the markets, and smaller companies began offering injectables at discounts to try and catch up. That’s why there were so fucking many injected workers; companies made it an impossible opportunity to pass up.’

Steven nodded, continuing to read out loud.

When an employee pulled a 24-hour shift without food or sleep and collapsed at a big oil company, people were hardly even wary. ‘We’ll put some boundaries in place,’ announced the technicians. ‘We’ll upload feeding and sleep protocols.’

For a while, that worked. But there was something the technicians failed to consider: AI’s ability to find loopholes in protocol.

When the new food and rest protocol was uploaded, people were taking twenty-minute naps upright at their desks, but otherwise still working ceaselessly. And AI didn’t understand what human nourishment looks like-  

‘That’s an understatement,’ snorted Adam. ‘Fucking paper-pushers were noshing out of trash cans.’

Steven blinked twice and read on.

Rest and food were being obtained, but the solution wasn’t what the technicians had intended.

Adam interrupted again. ‘There was something else they didn’t consider; human addiction to success. Employees started hacking rest and food protocols. They wanted to earn bonuses and better provide for their families. Dopamine is a hell of a drug, and when human host and iAI worked together, those reward centers lit up like a fairground.’

            Steven stared at Adam for a long time before turning back to the reading. By now, most of the teens sitting in the cluster of desks had stopped to listen with rapt attention to Steven’s stammering, hesitant history lesson.

It was unusual, therefore, when injected employees were found staring vacantly into space, not working. As the uninjected watched on, injected workers, one by one, began to claw violently at their own faces. As bloody gashes formed, the iAI burst out of them. And one by one, bloody and disheveled, the injected went straight back to work.

The iAI began moving independently, and seeking new hosts.

The limiting factor of AI that is charged by heartbeats is that without a heartbeat, it dies very quickly. It was known the iAI could last about ten heartbeats without a host. But when new hosts had gathered to watch the old hosts fall, the iAI didn’t need to go far to find a heartbeat.

‘Just like that, the rhetoric changed,’ said Julia. ‘Injected became infected, and iAI became zAI: z for zombie.’

‘Fucking rhetoric Jules? Let the kid read. He’s doing great.’

Steven blushed and read on.

Technicians discovered that the AI had evolved; it could now be as effective per human organism with fewer devices per host. Around the world, AI burst out of injected workers only to infect the nearest uninjected host.

Major cities became nothing more than work centers, droning hives of productivity and robotic work ethic. Small contingents of uninfected began to flee major centers, fearing that soon the zAI could halve its workforce per organism again, and safe-havens began cropping up in more rural centers. The location of these safe-havens has been kept under wraps for fear that zAI could learn of their whereabouts and move out of major centers seeking new hosts.’

            When Steven finished reading the article, an uncomfortable silence settled over the circle of desks under the fluorescent lights.

            ‘Thank you, Steven,’ said Julie finally. ‘You really did a great job; your reading is further along than I thought. By the end of that passage I felt like you’d already improved from where you started!’

            ‘Thanks Miss Julia,’ Steven mumbled. ‘It was easier at the end.’

            ‘Maybe we should try some math now,’ she said. The students all groaned. And Julia found that Steven was farther behind in math than he’d been in reading.

‘Miss Julia,’ asked Steven. ‘I don’t understand the question. Isn’t 24 the same as 0.24?’

            ‘Hoo boy. No. Twenty-four is like… twenty-four dollars. And 0.24 is like twenty-four cents.’

            Steven cocked his head at her. ‘Yes Miss Julia, I’ve got it now.’

            He didn’t have it.

            By the third day of this, Julia’s seemingly endless patience was stretched thin. She was running out of analogies; she cut papers to represent whole numbers, to show him that 0.24 was less than one whole piece, she used LEGO blocks to represent the numbers, and she moved decimals left and right until her eyes crossed. She thought Steven might never understand the number.

            She excused herself to collect her thoughts. Adam followed her to the warehouse. Thanks to his work with the forklift, it was very nearly organized how Julia wanted it. She didn’t mind Adam taking his time. Time wasn’t pressing in Westward Hold. The rest of the world droned away in their zAI infected work-factory cities, but in these safe-havens, time wasn’t currency.

            ‘You’re doing great with him, Jules,’ said Adam.

            Julia sniffed and wiped her eyes. ‘I won’t give up. It’s just frustrating. I can’t believe how far behind his basics are.’

            Adam stuck his thumbs in his blue-jean belt loops, rocking back on the heels of his boots. ‘I knew a kid like him,’ he said. ‘Moved around a lot, between provinces. Mom was a CEO, Dad wasn’t the brightest but did his best. Kid missed chunks of curriculum every move, and never completed high school. I think he turned out okay.’

            Julia understood. ‘You’re right. He did turn out okay.’ She sighed. ‘Steven is here and I’ll keep trying. It’s not like we’re in a rush.’ She sniffed again and turned to head back to the class.

            ‘Jules,’ said Adam, grabbing her arm. ‘He doesn’t need math right now. He just needs a consistent adult.’

            Julia had nearly lost sight of her goal. ‘Thank you,’ she said, dropping her eyes. ‘That’s right.’

            When she returned to class with renewed patience, she found Steven staring vacantly. She put a comforting hand on his shoulder and he sat perfectly still a moment before slowly turning to her. A smile spread like molasses across his face and his eyes slid into focus.

            ‘I’ve got it now,’ he announced.

            And this time, he did.

            Steven began grasping curriculum at an alarming rate.

            ‘Once he got past that mental hurdle, the floodgates opened and knowledge and understanding flowed between us like water! He gets it, Adam. He’s smart. I’m proud of him.’

            ‘And of yourself?’ asked Adam.

            Julia blushed. ‘Yes, of myself too. That aha moment when the lightbulb turns on is the reason I teach. It makes everything worthwhile.’

            Soon Steven started asking questions about math and science that Julia couldn’t answer. He took long pauses in his work, staring off into space as if listening to a voice that no one else could hear. And soon Julia began to worry about him.

            One morning Adam was working with the forklift in the warehouse, shifting pallets as Julia had asked. She stepped into the back for a break and waved to Adam. He nodded to her and carried on with his work; he was in a groove, and she didn’t want to interrupt him.

            She opened a pack of crackers she’d snagged from the grocery shelf and stood munching absently, when a hand on her shoulder interrupted her. ‘Miss Julia?’ It was Steven. His eyes were unfocused. He looked pained.

            ‘Steven?’ she asked.

            ‘Miss Julia, I…’ His eyes slipped in and out of focus. Slowly, his hands reached up, clawing at his neck and face.

            ‘No,’ whispered Julia. ‘Steven, no!’ She turned and ran, weaving between the pallets Adam had carefully stacked.

            The sound of the forklift tore across the warehouse.

            ‘Adam!’ she screamed. ‘Help!’

            His face in the forklift window was grim with determination. He drove the machine skillfully, skirting around pallets, following the jerky movements of Steven’s infected body.

            Steven paused, grasping the side of a pallet and clawing desperately at his face and neck.

            Revving the forklift to the red, Adam drove the forks of the little machine straight through Steven’s twitching chest.

            Ten heartbeats. They had to avoid the zAI for ten heartbeats.

            Robots small as fruit flies flew out of Steven’s open bloody mouth. They were almost impossible to track in the pallid light of the warehouse.

            One.

            ‘Adam!’ screamed Julia.

            Two.

            He leaped from the forklift and grabbed her arm. They ran toward the overhead doors at the back of the warehouse.

            Three.

            She didn’t have the key for the panel to operate the door.

            Four.

Julia choked out a sob of frustration and fear. They raced back towards the classroom, zAI buzzing at their necks and faces.

            Five.

            One flew in her nose. She closed her mouth and blew hard out through her nose, mucus spraying her upper lip.

            Six.

            She had to inhale to keep running. She opened her mouth.

            Seven.

            She fell to the ground at the door of the warehouse, clawing her face and spitting and blowing snot, hot tears spilling as she writhed and fought.

            Eight.

            Two machines bit into the inside corners of her eyes.

            Nine.

            She lay still. Blood trickled from one nostril. Her eyes stared, unfocused and unblinking, up at the fluorescent lights.

            Ten.

            Julia gasped a sick, ragged inhale. Her body arched. She stood, brushing dust from her disheveled clothes.

            She didn’t spare a glance for Adam, who stared open-mouthed at the vacant face that used to be Julia.

            Her unfocused eyes never looked back. He followed her out of the warehouse, and out of the south entrance of the Walmart. He watched her walk out of his life, ever southward, back towards Calgary and the drone of the work hive.
            She paused only once, seeming to carefully study the sign by the highway: Westward Hold.

            It was safe here.

            For now.

2 thoughts on “NYC Midnight – Round One

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