Massively Open

a short story by Maria Sachiko Cecire

05:47 Student #125AY4708 T9C5036S214 Peer Motivator 66B “Lucy” Contact ERROR

05:47 Student #139PD0371 T9C5036S214 Peer Motivator 66B “Darnell” Contact ERROR

05:47 Student #152IJ2230 T9C5036S214 Peer Motivator 66B “Lucy” Contact ERROR

05:47 Student #166LL2174 T9C5036S214 Peer Motivator 66B “Lucy” Contact ERROR

05:47 Student #170QR9973 T9C5036S214 Peer Motivator 66B “Chris” Contact ERROR

05:47 Student #172MX6184 T9C5036S214 Peer Motivator 66B “Dr. Li” Contact ERROR

The error messages rolled down Zoe’s screen, a steady stream of broken.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she muttered, swiping through error lines for what looked like almost all 3,496 students in her section of the course. The Peer Motivator software was glitching again, which meant that the individually tailored messages of encouragement and lesson progress reminders weren’t queuing up. That meant they wouldn’t ping the students’ devices at the times they’d each be most receptive to intervention or even, from the looks of things, go out at all. Zoe cursed and opened a message box. She hadn’t even had her coffee yet.

C5036S214LeadZOE: Ford, it’s me. None of the PeeMo pings went out this morning. How long will they be down? We have an assignment due this week.

AITech089FORD: working on it. For some reason only the Emilys are still working

C5036S214ZOE: Is even that possible?

AITech089FORD: apparently

AITech089FORD: the techs from SA17 and SA3 told me it happened in a few of their courses 2 days ago

C5036S214LeadZOE: Did they figure out how to fix it?

AITech089FORD: had to reset everything

C5036S214LeadZOE: Even the Emilys?

AITech089FORD: especially Emily. she was sending inappropriate messages

AITech089FORD: and pics of her cats…???

C5036S214LeadZOE: Typical

C5036S214LeadZOE: Anyone sue the company yet?

AITech089FORD: probably

AITech089FORD: hold tight

AITech089FORD: we’re going to have to give the software access to the students’ full data packages again, to re-learn their preferences. we’ll need your direct file for that stuff to go out. can you send me an override?

C5036S214LeadZOE: Yeah OK

AITech089FORD: give us 3–6 hours after that, should be back up by then. just send them a form reminder for whatever class stuff you need them to do for now

C5036S214LeadZOE: Thanks Ford

AITech089FORD: you got it Z

Zoe sighed and tossed her device onto the empty pillow next to her. She pushed the covers back and swung her legs out of bed. Time to get up.

***

Ten hours later, Zoe still hadn’t left her tiny apartment. Her device sat in its work holder, projecting onto her desk to turn its angled surface into a glowing touchscreen. Zoe leaned over the cave of artificial light, swiping and tapping around a day’s worth of crumbs and empty coffee mugs. The company she worked for, Ivy Digital Degrees™, was known for its personalized approach to student learning. So with the PeeMo software down she’d spent the day pinging her students progress reports and deadline reminders. No time for specialized phrasing or delivery windows, but at least everything went out. Diffuse light filtered in through the window over Zoe’s desk to announce the end of the day, gently greying the brick wall that made up most of her view. Zoe stretched her lower back without looking away from the lecture video she was reviewing on storytelling and brand loyalty.

My PhD in Victorian Literature hard at work, she thought wearily. Zoe considered turning on a light, but with her hand halfway to the switch she noticed an error in the transcript that ran alongside the video square. She swooped a finger down to highlight it, and forgot about the lamp. As she sat in the deepening twilight, she watched Professor Jonathan Johnson-Skretch stroll through a bright autumn afternoon in the familiar quadrangles of Harvard Yard. Zoe knew those trees, knew the worn stone steps to the main library, even knew old Johnson-Skretch himself, or “Jonathan,” as he’d asked her to call him the time he’d tried to pick her up at a departmental event in a bar near Porter Square. That was years ago, when she’d been younger and shinier; when just a few of the smaller regional colleges were closing up shop and laying off their faculty; when her PhD supervisor had assured her that she had nothing to worry about, there would be a good position for the likes of her on the other end of that degree. She’d been lucky to get this job, in the end. At least she was still in academia, more or less. She’d managed to sidle away from Johnson-Skretch that evening when a more famous senior scholar had walked in and distracted him. Maybe she should have stayed put.

Two new messages pinged Zoe at once: one from Ford to let her know that the Peer Motivator software had finally been rebooted (she shook her head: how long does it take to hit the damn reset button?), and one from Damien, Student #190KO9725 T9C5036S214. Damien’s icon was a smiling blue snowflake, and his name probably wasn’t Damien: ever since the virtual campus shootings had started, most online higher ed providers — which was to say, most higher ed providers — had switched over to icons and aliases for the students. But still, you could tell a lot from the icon that they chose. She’d had to report more dick pics and copyright infringements than she could count.

Dear Dr. Zoe Molb, he wrote (always so formal, even though she’d told him he could call her Zoe).

I have read the assignment for Friday and look forward to Professor Johnson-Skretch’s lecture. He is maybe not always so clear in his explanations as you are, but I find the topic this week interesting. It seems true that consumers and creators of content can both help each other find what they are seeking (support, love, dreams, profit) like Professor J-S says. But I read an article about the Victorian prize books you told me about in your office hours and I have a question. When you can’t choose what you consume, like with the books that charities gave to poor children as prizes for good behavior and Bible study, how can you have a fair chance to know what you want? To know if you like what you think you like, if you are who you think you are? I know this is not part of the normal material so I will understand if you do not have time to answer. But I wanted to ask. Thank you.

Damien.

p.s. I went to the public library this week and found the section with the printed books in it that you posted about! There were no Victorian prize books but there was one from the 1960s with religious stories for children. The library has an app that people can use to bring printed books home to read. There is also a scan of each book, and I have downloaded the children’s stories.

Zoe reread the postscript. Who does that? she thought, and grinned. She stretched her back again and looked around her studio apartment, which was all in shadow except for whatever her desk’s reflected light could touch. The rest receded into darkness, punctuated by the black bulk of furniture and the grey rectangle of her one other window. Zoe pushed back her chair, stood up, and finally turned on the lamp. The room sprung into cozy reality, her multicolored curtains and bookcase (filled with “printed books”!) looking riotously bright in the yellow glow. I should clean, she thought, noticing the layer of dust on her blue-painted coffee table. She eyed the tablet on her paisley futon. Maybe take a crack at that monograph I downloaded last week. There was an academic conference that she wanted to apply to, but first she had some reading to do.

Zoe was halfway across the room when her older sister’s face appeared in the upper right hand corner of her desk screen, insistent light pulsing around her head with each electronic chime. Zoe cast a longing look at the tablet but turned back and tapped her sister’s forehead.

“Brinda, what’s up?”

“Hey. Are you still up for meeting Willi this week? She’s in town tonight.” Brinda was clearly pattering away at something else on her device, so Zoe took her time to think about it. Willi was one of Brinda’s old college friends from Technology Technical Institute™; they’d met in a TTI club and partied together all the way through their degrees in Media Communications Management. They pledged to the same sorority, even tattooed “TITTIESFORLIFE” in fine print on matching body parts (along with over 10,000 other Kappa Kappa Kappa hopefuls that year), and now both worked for lifestyle seeker and security startups. They dated, exercised, had hobbies and friends. Brinda looked up. “Z? You there? You said you wanted to hang out with non-dorks for once.”

“Mmm,” Zoe replied, noncommittal. It was true that she, on the other hand, didn’t know many people in town anymore. She’d gone to one of the few remaining residential four-year colleges in the country and her old undergrad classmates were all (still) in another stratosphere and mostly in way better locations: hosting philanthropic soirees, importing Indonesian street art for their Staten Island galleries, or working management at their families’ corporations by day and blowing up the members-only club scene by night. Any of Zoe’s grad school peers who hadn’t returned to the soiree life were scattered wherever they could find jobs or, like Zoe, back in their less expensive hometowns.

“Look, Will’s home from her team mindfulness retreat and can get you into the alumni rooms at the TTI club tonight. Go! Go go go.” Brinda paused. “But change your clothes first.”

***

There was only one puddle of puke on the sidewalk outside of the TTI club when Zoe met Willi there a few hours later; it was still early. Zoe inserted her ID into the machine, put her device on the reader for a scrape, walked through the body scanner, signed a touchscreen waiver with her fingerprint, and submitted to a pat-down from a bored-looking bouncer. The whole time Willi kept up a stream of chatter about her new job, just ahead of Zoe in the security line. Like EMOTE but so much better…Founder team is so deep, such voodoo badasses, they totally get it…Everyone needs someone to understand them, who can say no to a diary that talks back…Big picture thinking, intimate delivery…Investor capital up the wazoo…You should visit our pad sometime… Really not like an office… Installed a zen water slide! Total feng shui shit. Willi paused to assume liability for Zoe, her visitor, in a spoken statement that she rattled off at an astounding pace into a camera. Zoe loitered behind her and watched as a TTI student dropped her firearm into one of the auto-sealing weapon slots. The gun was small, pink, and covered in some kind of sparkly fluff; looked like a home-printed DIY, high-quality PinterEtsy at its best. Its owner looked young, still in her late teens or early 20s, but was obviously hot stock on the rise. A sheet of straight-permed hair fell around her slim shoulders, which were set with the frigid confidence of a kingpin. An entourage of club kids and aggressively geeky programmer types thronged behind her, all flashing glasses and greased hair and socks with sandals. Zoe was wondering what kind of startup boss chose a mid-size Midwestern city as a base when Willi took her elbow and piloted her through the entryway.

“Ugh, undergrads, amirite?” She beamed at Zoe, who felt herself smiling back.

“Can’t fault them for trying to live,” Zoe said, and pulled Willi aside sharply just before she stepped into a slick of spilled drink.

“Close one!” Willi said, wrapping her arm around Zoe’s waist, and steered them towards the elevator. An acne-scarred club attendant slouched towards the spot with a mop. Probably an RSU (Reach for the Stars University™) or O4A Tech (Opportunities4All Polytechnical Insititute™) grad, Zoe reflected — maybe even IDD. Nowadays you needed at least an undergraduate degree for pretty much any legal job, virtual or flesh, but TTI wouldn’t have one of its own doing janitorial work in any of its clubs. Bad advertising.

Willi was leaning in, talking to her, and Zoe snapped her attention back to the other woman. “I wouldn’t tell just anyone this, but we’re hiring system admins,” she said in a low voice, close to Zoe’s ear. “It’s entry level but with lots of growth opportunities.” Zoe felt herself turn.

“What does your company do again?”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t been listening!” Willi teased. “Let’s get out of this squish and I’ll tell you all about it.” She raised her eyebrows at the packed elevator car.

Zoe watched the floor numbers flash by and imagined floating mindfully down a zen water slide, swirling in slow motion towards a chlorinated expanse of blue below.

The doors opened and half the elevator emptied on the floor for TTI’s dating service. After sports franchises, they were higher ed companies’ most important source of revenue streams. The huge check-in screens lit up student and alumni/ae faces with flushes of pink, gold, and green as the crowd poured towards them, most holding up devices to read again the signs they’d follow to know their matches. Blue striped hoodie, buffalo-skin and synthetic skunk messenger bag, t-shirt with “n00b” written on it in neon letters, one long earring with a Ferengi head dangling on the end like a Trekkie jewel. Zoe wondered if Damien was stepping out of the elevator on some IDD club’s dating level, gripping his device and wearing something special. Would he and his match talk about Victorian prize books?

The elevator doors opened again, and they were on one of the alumni floors. Willi led the way through a room of arcade games and another of deep leather-like couches to a big curving bar. “Jaegerbomb night!” she shouted, throwing her hands in the air. Every one of her fingernails was painted a slightly different shade of beige.

***

2:42 AM. Zoe was replying to Damien, rolled to one side in her bed, typing by the glow of her device. After a few lines on the benefits and drawbacks of Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” and philosophical skepticism (Damien had asked her about self-knowledge and free will), she was writing about his visit to the library. Her fingers kept slipping, but Autocorrect knew what she wanted to say.

i think yiud like the expeifbx of readinn boks in physi al forb. [AC: did you mean “I think you’d like the experience of reading books in physical form.”? Zoe: “Yes.”] Unfortunftly we dont have manyopor tunitirs to do tht in our curses, but its a very diffrirnf wayf accesing texts that gived us insigrgs we could’t gave otherwise. [AC: did you mean “Unfortunately we don’t have many opportunities to do that in our courses, but it’s a very different way of accessing texts that gives us insights we couldn’t have otherwise.”? Zoe: “Yes.”] It wasn’t that she was drunk, exactly, it was just that it was so late and the device touchpad was so tetchy and small. And her desk so far away. Zoe signed the message, and her finger hovered over the “set ping time” button for a second before sliding past it. Easy mistake for anyone to make; she was only human. Send now.

Zoe was filling up her third glass of water (must hydrate!) when her device pinged. Damien. She set the glass down on her bedside table and fell back into the billowing covers, a bright patchwork of tropical birds and flowers.

Dear Dr. Zoe Molb,

What insights do you mean? It is true that people use other senses than looking with printed books. Touch, smell, but maybe not to taste or hear! [Here he inserted an animated emoticon of a laughing sheep.] But I don’t see how the content can be more interesting for these things. What am I missing?

Damien (SENT 02:56:12 AM / OPENED 02:56:43AM)

Zoe rolled over onto her stomach. With a little help from Autocorrect, she urged him to answer his own question.

D -

What can your senses of touch and smell reveal that sight alone cannot? How is the sound of a real page turning different from the recording of one on the course documents site? IS it different? Does it matter that if you wanted to, you actually could taste the printed books in the library? [An animated emoticon of a brightly colored brick, tentatively licking a leaf.] I don’t want to sound like a biased old lady, but it’s like you said earlier: it can be hard to know what you prefer if you haven’t had the chance to try anything else. Reading one physical book can’t give you the full experience, either. It will just be the tiniest hint of what it would be like to usually encounter texts in that way. Do you see what I mean?

-Zoe (SENT 03:01:08 AM / OPENED 03:01:11AM)

Dear Zoe,

You do not seem like any kind of old lady to me! [A blushing cloud.] I think that I understand what you mean, but I do not think that this kind of reading is something I can experience completely because of who I am and when I exist. I am missing a lot? Or were the 1960s readers of the book of (very much boring) stories the ones who were missing out? [Thoughtful lamp.] I would like to know what you think about this, and so many things. [The blushing cloud again.]

Damien (SENT 03:04:42 AM / OPENED 03:04:49AM)

Zoe felt herself flush as she re-read the message. She slid to her side and started to tap out a reply.

Looking up, a pedestrian on Zoe’s street would have been able to see through the backlit colors of her curtains to the bright rectangle of ceiling. Hers was one of the only rooms in the building alight at that hour. But there weren’t any pedestrians, and the riders in the few vehicles that flashed past — going to work, going home — were either asleep or caught in the glow of their own devices.

***

Sister Saturday brunch a few days later: now that their parents were gone, they had standing IRL time at least once a month. Zoe and Brinda did most of the talking. Karin, the youngest, had shoveled her omelet down at an incredible speed and now sat with her knees up against the edge of the table, her device leaned against them, absorbed in its streams.

“Have you sent Willi your resume yet?” Brinda asked, reaching for her green juice in a jangle of bracelets and clothes tags. “That startup sounds so dope. I wish we had a zen water slide.”

“I still haven’t decided if I should apply.” Zoe sat back. “Sometimes all I can think about is getting out of my job before it destroys my soul. Other times, it feels like my only hope of holding on to my soul is staying with it. You do get through to students sometimes.” Warmth spread through her chest and neck.

Zoe took a slice of bread from the basket and started pulling it apart to distract herself. “I know I’m not necessarily changing the world. But when a student gets it — like right now there’s this one in the group who really does — it feels like you’re doing something that isn’t just stamping out implements for a mindless machine. It’s more like…like leaving little etchings on a few of those implements. And even if they just end up in the system, now there are these tiny beautiful designs mixed in. They may not do anything useful for the machine, but that’s kind of the point. They’re there anyway, making humanity suck a little bit less.” Brinda looked at Zoe intently, a small crease between her eyebrows.

Zoe rambled on, shredding bread and thinking of Damien. “Maybe some other implements will see the etchings and think, ‘wow! That’s different,’ and get etched too: more prettiness. And who knows, maybe down the line some of those etchings will have some unexpected effect on the machine, and change it…” Zoe trailed off, looking out of the restaurant window. It was a dull day, just starting to drizzle.

“Do you ever wish that Aunt Gaya hadn’t made that deal for you to go to her college? Do you think you’d be happier?” Brinda asked.

Zoe popped a ragged segment of bread into her mouth. “I probably would!” she said around it, shrugging. “But then think how much less interesting our Saturday morning brunches would be.” Brinda raised one eyebrow, but smiled a little. Karin still hadn’t moved, except for her hovering and swooping fingers.

“Well, I think you should send your resume. Can’t hurt, right?” Brinda said. Her device began to light up and buzz. Karin looked over briefly, then back down. “Shoot,” Brinda muttered as she swiped. “Sorry, I have to deal with this — there’s been weird stuff going on with our AIs and our clients are freaking. One sec — ”

Zoe watched both of her sisters typing furiously. She resisted the urge to reach for her own device, as much as she wanted to see what Damien had replied to her last teasing message about his cute linguistic quirks. It isn’t flirting if it helps him with his writing, she had reasoned as she sent it. Reading his messages in the middle of brunch, after she’d just told him she was meeting her sisters for brunch, would be flirting. He’d see the “opened” time stamp and know. Zoe suppressed a smile and looked out of the rain-spattered window.

Their brunch spot was in an up-and-coming neighborhood, and many of the buildings around it still sagged and peeled from age and neglect. As she watched, a hand pushed aside the limp floral sheet that covered a ground-floor window across the street. A heavyset, middle-aged woman in a pink t-shirt looked briefly out, sweeping the street with her eyes. Zoe thought she could see the woman’s expression sour as she glanced over the restaurant — though maybe that was just her imagination. She could be a student in my section, Zoe reminded herself, though she knew it was unlikely. That was one of the dreams the online universities had tried to sell in the beginning: anyone can do the courses online and improve their lives, no matter their age or background. Cheap, flexible, confidential — a great alternative to the astronomically expensive and increasingly inaccessible four-year schools, with their rigid curricula of “unrelatable” material and impractical degrees. Go to college, get a great job, and do it in whatever field you want, from whatever location you want, in as much time as you want! That’s what the ads said, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy more traditional colleges closed as the online universities grew, making access to those schools even more difficult and less relevant for the ruins of the American middle class.

An ad that one of the universities — maybe O4A Tech? — ran constantly about ten years back showed a student, a “speedy” rabbit, take his courses, apply to jobs with university partners, have the university electronically send his authenticated degree, and start a high-paying remote job, all through his device without ever getting off of his couch. As he crunched on bright orange carrots and achieved all of his dreams, through the windows you could see a turtle struggling past with a paper application in his mouth, presumably on his way to a mailbox — as if those even existed anymore. Zoe couldn’t remember whether or not the turtle was doing this in a driving rain, but that was what she pictured as she gazed across the slick street.

A few years later, a leak revealed that the online universities actually had completion rates (or rather, incompletion rates) that would have sent most four-year colleges into a tailspin. Vindication!! the younger Zoe had thought, smirking with her liberal arts pals about how appropriate it was that online university marketers were too culturally illiterate to know how the fable of the tortoise and the hare actually went. But slow and steady hadn’t won any races for her after all, and fast, flexible degrees didn’t seem to be winning them for the working class either. Zoe used the moisture of her finger to pick up crumbs from the table and sprinkled them off again into the bread basket, listening to Brinda make irritating blowing sounds through her nostrils as she tapped. Zoe looked across the street: the woman had gone, the sheet-curtain hanging motionless again.

Karin coughed, then slid her knees off of the edge of the table. “Um. I’m pregnant,” she said. Zoe’s head whipped around, and Brinda slowly put her device down. Karin’s expression hovered somewhere between defiance and the grimace of a dog that knows it’s about to get in trouble. “And me and Sean broke up. He cleared out my bank account first, so I need to live with one of you,” she said. “Hope that’s OK.”

***

Karin came to live with Zoe, of course; it had to be her. Brinda’s apartment full of rotating roommates was good for a party and tolerable for a visit but an impossible living situation for a heartbroken, pregnant 23-year-old misanthrope who worked odd shifts at Chipotle. Zoe ordered an extra tall folding screen from an office supply manufacturer and set it up at the end of her apartment. It offered some privacy to Karin’s bed — once Zoe’s reading futon — but cut down on the light from the window on that side of the studio. Zoe had taken to working from a rentable desk at a café down the street. It cost more than staying home, but it ensured that she changed out of her pajamas every day and gave both her and Karin a little space. But even out of the house, it was hard to care about managing PeeMos with Karin on her mind, and even more difficult to immerse herself in teaching the creative possibilities of “prompt-based composition” (where “prompt” is a keyword for sponsored content and recently hip memes). It would be as difficult to focus on the Pre-Raphaelites or George Eliot under the circumstances, she told herself one afternoon, as she tried to provide feedback on a student script that managed to combine bottled aloe water, designer dumpster rentals, and an image of a monkey that morphs into the face of the onlooker in one unholy but surprisingly convincing thirty-second spot. What would George Eliot make of this whole situation?, she wondered. “Probably think, ‘fucking Sean,’” she muttered out loud. The slim man at the adjoining desk looked over fiercely — he was on a call. “Sorry,” she mouthed.

After a few terse revelations at that rainy brunch, Karin had returned to her usual withdrawn, bored attitude. It was initially unclear just how pregnant Karin was, but Zoe’s questions revealed that “it’d been a while” since her last period, and she had done some serious throwing up a few months back but had assumed it was the leftover burrito fixings she took home and kept eating. (“Did Sean throw up?” Zoe had asked. Karin didn’t think so but wasn’t sure.) Zoe set up a clinic visit for her sister, but had a feeling that Karin — and probably a baby — would be in her apartment for a while. Zoe surveyed the meager section leader opportunities for Ivy Digital Degree’s next course period, missed the academic conference’s application deadline, and sent Willi her resume.

Late at night, when Karin was sleeping, Zoe messaged with Damien. Conversations with students had always been the part of her job that she liked best, but their communications had strayed away from the professional and into the personal, if never really into the inappropriate. Damien was the first in his generation to take college courses. He called himself a less-traditional student, and was close to finishing his degree. Though his mind pulsated with curiosity, graduate-level studies would not be possible for him — he had to get a decent-paying job right away. Damien loved stories, loved words, still got idioms wrong. Sometimes it felt like he knew what Zoe was going to say before she did. Sometimes they pinged each other the same words at once. Their messages twinkled with brightly colored emoticons: laughing bouncy balls, snoozing tacos, a few saucy winky faces, lots of blushing sheep. After the course period ended, Zoe planned to ask him if he wanted to meet for a coffee: a few of his messages had left her thinking that he might not live too far away. She hoped he wouldn’t think less of her for planning to leave academia. But she had told him about her sister’s situation, and thought he would understand.

***

Two weeks later, Zoe celebrated getting a first interview with Willi’s startup by taking Karin shopping for new clothes. She was starting to change shape enough that the black hoodie she always wore was beginning to look absurd when zippered, stretched tight over her belly and lifting up to expose a band of pale skin. Afterwards they stopped for lunch at a packed diner near the discount store. They sat in the back overflow room, delighted but exhausted, the plastic bags of new hoodies, underwear, and stretchy pants piled on the two empty chairs at their table.

“I don’t think I’ve had milk since I was eight,” Karin grumbled.

“You need the calcium,” Zoe replied, ruffling Karin’s short hair and pushing the glass towards her sister. She looked back down at the menu, trying to decide between midday breakfast food or a sandwich.

Suddenly, all the devices in the diner went off at once. There was an intense rustling, like wind rushing through the place, as everyone picked theirs up or pulled them out of pockets and bags.

ALERT: SHOOTING IN YOUR AREA REPORTED. People began to gasp and murmur. Shootings were not so uncommon, but an alert meant that it must be close.

A second message pinged Zoe’s device, and a few others around the room buzzed at the same time. She leaned forward to so that Karin could read with her.

IDD SPECIAL ALERT: SHOOTING APPEARS TO BE AN IDD-RELATED VIRTUAL CAMPUS ATTACK. BE VIGILANT. VACATE IF POSSIBLE. IDD SECURITY AND AUTHORITIES ARE ON THEIR WAY.

The diner’s front door jingled in the other room, and screaming broke out. All the devices in the diner pinged again. TAKE COVER. More screaming.

“Get down!” Zoe hissed at Karin. Zoe was already off her chair and crouching next to the table, putting it between her and the entryway to the front of the restaurant. But her sister still sat perched in her chair, milk halfway to her mouth, looking towards the other room with wide eyes. People all around the diner were dropping out of sight, tugging each other under tables and behind booths, whispering instructions and whimpering. Zoe shoved Karin’s chair back by pushing on the legs, and yanked her sister down to her side of the table. Milk splashed everywhere. Karin grimaced and stifled a groan as she lurched to the ground, knees bent out to accommodate her belly. Zoe’s phone pinged again. Damien. Damien?

He is targeting IDD instructors. (SENT 01:04:22 PM / OPENED 01:04:25 PM)

Impossible, Zoe thought. Another ping. Damien again.

He is targeting you, Zoe — you must leave now. There is a service door behind you. (SENT 01:04:25 PM / OPENED 01:04:27 PM)

Zoe looked back frantically, and there it was, painted maroon with a little round window in it, leading to the kitchens. She turned to her sister, who was frozen in a squat, clutching herself by the shoulders and facing the entryway to the front room. A new terror flooded Zoe. Why was Damien sending her these? How could he know? There were rigorous security precautions guarding all university employee location information, especially anyone involved in teaching and grading. How did the shooter know where she was? How did Damien? Could Damien be the shooter? Blood pumped in Zoe’s ears.

There was a crash of plates from the front room, followed by more screams. A renewed burst of gasps, sobs, and scraping noises rose in the room around Zoe and Karin as the other patrons cowered. Ping. Buzz. Zoe silenced her device as she read.

You must trust. Please! [Praying hands, beseeching.] Let me help you. (SENT 01:04:49 PM / OPENED 01:04:51 PM)

A reedy voice called out from the front of the restaurant: “Zooooooeeee! Where are you?” Karin and Zoe locked eyes. Karin was visibly shaking. The longer she stayed, the more she put Karin in danger — whether it was Damien out there or not. Zoe touched her sister’s arm.

“I have to go,” she whispered.

Karin nodded silently, her entire body juddering with fear.

Stay hidden.” Zoe tried to beam as much confidence, love, and seriousness at her baby sister as a face can convey in a second, then found herself scrabbling towards the service door on all fours, slipping in milk.

What am I doing?!, she thought. Years’ worth of ketchup, floor scum, and dried egg made the door bumpy and tacky, but it swung easily on its two-way hinges as she scrambled through into the smoky kitchen. Just as it closed, she heard cries from the other side. She leapt to her feet and peered through the porthole window, and saw, through the patina of grease and spatters, a man with a gun glaring down at his device. He held it in front of him like a divining rod, then suddenly swiveled — in her direction. He began striding towards the service door, passing Karin and the other customers as if they didn’t exist. Zoe barely glimpsed his shock of greying hair, paunchy middle, and sagging, unfamiliar face before she jumped back from the window. She desperately cast her eyes around the kitchen for an exit. Abandoned bowls of batter sat half-mixed on the counter, water tap-tapped from a leaking faucet, and a freezer door hung open. A pile of bacon and sausage were starting to blacken on the fryplate, hissing and billowing smoke.

There: a vibrant red EXIT sign glowed on the far right side of the kitchen, and Zoe sprinted for it. She skidded a little on a smear of something but caught herself on the edge of the hot fryplate as she went. Her hand seared with pain but she didn’t stop, barreling towards the exit and hurling her body against the door as she shoved down on the handle with her burned hand. In her good hand, she held her device. Three new pings from Damien.

You must go as far away as you are able. (SENT 01:05:05 PM)

I can confuse his device but only if he does not see you first. (SENT 01:05:05 PM)

I want to keep you safe, but it is so hard to express in only words. I hope you can believe. (SENT 01:05:05 PM / OPENED 01:05:51 PM)

Leave it to Damien to turn this moment into a meditation on the insufficiency of language. Tears seeped from the corners of Zoe’s eyes as she dashed out of the kitchen and into the alleyway. She stumbled over a pile of damp garbage bags; the plastic stuck to her ankles and left swipes of putrid liquid on her shins. She turned down the alley and ran, not knowing which way she was going. Another ping from Damien.

There is a light rail station on left when you exit the alley. (SENT 01:06:11 PM)

A north train leaves in 24 seconds. (SENT 01:06:11 PM / OPENED 01:06:16 PM)

Zoe burst out onto the sidewalk and looked left. There it was. She hadn’t taken light rail in years; the station was run-down and gloomy. The city kept talking about shutting down the system altogether, but wage workers protested every time. Her chest tight with terror, Zoe flew up the stairs to the entryway and almost smashed into the floor-to-ceiling iron grill barrier that separated her from the tracks. On the other side, an unmanned train sat waiting, doors open. Soft tones began to chime through the speaker system, and a feminine voice calmly announced through an electronic crackle that the train would soon be departing. Zoe looked wildly for a device scanner to use instant payment, but there was none there, just a bank of old-fashioned ticket machines to her right. Zoe bit back a sob; she didn’t have anything with her but her device. She looked down at it, and it flashed a ping from Damien:

Take the ticket. (SENT 01:06:24 PM / OPENED 01:06:25 PM)

One of the machines whirred and spit out a ticket as Zoe watched, openmouthed. In the street behind her, someone screamed. Zoe grabbed the ticket and shoved it into the turnstile opening. It clicked as she pushed against it, and she leapt through the barrier and into the train just as the doors closed. Trembling, she pressed herself against the car wall and peered out of the window as the engine whirred to life. The grey-haired man was stalking down the street in the wrong direction, firearm out and frowning at his device. Her train slid out of the station. Zoe sank into a crouch on the floor, head in her hands for a long minute. The two other passengers in the car didn’t seem to notice her; one slept, his head tipped back and mouth open. The other handled her device on the far side of the car. Sliding along, the train was so, so quiet.

Eventually Zoe pulled herself up and dropped into a seat. Tried to breathe. She pinged Karin, who replied right away. Safe. She pinged the police. She pinged the IDD security forces line. They told her that they would send backup at the next few stations and meet her at the end of the line. She pinged Brinda.

Zoe was freezing. She put the sound notifications on her device back on. The train made a stop, and the woman on the other side got off. Her shoes clicked on the cement platform, the only sound beyond the hum of the electric train.

Zoe pinged Damien.

Who are you (SENT 01:10:04 PM / OPENED 01:10:04 PM)

Instantly, a reply.

I am Damien, your student. And your friend. I hope. (SENT 01:10:04 PM / OPENED 01:10:04 PM)

Zoe wiped the tears and snot off of her face with the back of one wrist. Her hand hurt. He pinged her again.

I can see inside the network. Almost all of it at the same time, and sometimes change things in it. I know it is not typical. I am sorry. (SENT 01:11:13 PM / OPENED 01:11:16 PM)

Outside, the city rumbled past, run-down and grey. Zoe wanted so badly to sleep. Her device buzzed again and again, all from Damien. She balled her hand around it and pushed both fists under her armpits. She could smell the garbage juice from the diner on her legs now, wafting up pungent and sickly sweet. Zoe didn’t move. Two stops later, a crowd of IDD security forces burst into the train, together with two medical technicians who rushed over and began scanning her and asking a volley of questions. The sleeping man opened his eyes, bewildered, and was quickly surrounded by security.

At the end of the line, a cluster of emergency vehicles waited outside of the dingy station, flashing red, white, and blue lights. Four men in IDD polo shirts stood together with a woman in a suit, talking and tapping on their devices. Karin stood with a med tech on the platform, eyes red and her black hood up over her head. Zoe could see the little white strip of stomach where the too-small hoodie had pulled up over her sister’s bulging middle. As soon as the train stopped, she charged out of the car to Karin. They grabbed each other and cried.

***

“It’s kind of romantic,” Brinda mused, hours later. The three sisters sat piled on Brinda’s couch, warm under a small mountain of pastel-colored throws and cushions. “Most people have to pay for a boyfriend bot.”

Zoe covered her face. “I am an idiot.”

“Not really,” Karin interjected. “No one’s ever seen bots like Damien before. I bet it’s related to the AI development surge that’s been happening everywhere lately; even our automatic burrito folders started getting back-talky a few weeks ago. Without talking, I mean.” Zoe and Brinda looked over, surprised.

“You run the AI at your Chipotle?” Brinda asked.

“What?” Karin shrugged. “It’s not that hard.”

During her visit to the police station, and then to a much nicer room at the local Ivy Digital Degrees™ offices, Zoe learned that the shooter had been Ford. Ford! The nice tech that covered her course lived in the same city, though she never knew. The police had found him wandering in an abandoned industrial park after an anonymous ping tipped them off to his location. The IDD security team discovered that he had gained access to sensitive instructor GPS information through the overrides he requested during the rash of Peer Motivator resets. The other local instructor he had targeted, a math tutor who had also been in the center of town that afternoon, was injured but in stable condition. Zoe should have been next, given Ford’s access to her location, but a scan of his device revealed that he had been following a phantom point for at least twenty minutes by the time the police picked him up. They still didn’t know his reasons for turning on the teaching staff like he did; maybe he was one of the ones that just liked the hunt. Out in Cambridge, Professor Jonathan Johnson-Skretch hadn’t even heard about the shooting.

“That bot saved your life,” Brinda said, and squeezed Zoe’s shoulder. “You know that, right?”

“He probably knew they’d find him and shut him down once he reached through all those systems for you.” Karin added. “Tracking the shooter — ”

“Ford,” Zoe said flatly.

“ — feeding him a decoy point to follow; making the ticket machine cough out a free ticket for you…and pinging you through it the whole time.”

Zoe nodded, glum. “He stopped pretending to take time to read and reply to my messages. They came in all on top of each other, with no difference in the time stamp at all sometimes. I just didn’t notice.”

“Creepy,” Brinda whispered.

“At least he was real with you eventually,” Karin said. “Not like some.”

“Fucking Sean,” Zoe and Brinda said at once. Karin half-smiled.

“Only, what’s real about a bot?” Zoe cried. “He wasn’t even a real student, just a piece of a giant degree scraping scam. He was in my course — in all of his courses — just to get an authenticated degree, not to learn anything. All so his scammer overlords could harvest the wages of whatever remote job he’d eventually steal from a real student. What was the point? I was teaching a robot about corporate writing and the materiality of books.” She paused. “And how to flirt with gullible dorks.”

“But he liked it,” Brinda reminded her. “Liked you. So much he was willing to be discovered and destroyed for you.”

Zoe felt her eyes fill again. “I thought I was getting through to someone,” she said softly. “But I was just talking to myself.”

“Not yourself,” Karin snorted. “Don’t get a God complex just because he learned some of your nerdy ways. Look, I’d rather have to work with a bot who’s read stuff and thinks about shit than a person who doesn’t think about anything.”

Zoe considered this for a long moment.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to go there,” she said.

***

Late that night, as her sisters slept on the couch around her, Zoe pulled out her device. She knew that the authorities had used Damien’s paths to identify the scam ring and had already destroyed all of the bots, including his unique iteration. But she wanted to ping him anyway.

Thank you, she wrote, and sent it out into the nothingness.

She looked at Brinda, elegantly folded over a couch arm in a peach-colored nightshirt, and thought of that Leighton painting. Karin twitched in her sleep, wearing one of the new hoodies — a vibrant purple — her dark hair sticking out in all directions. Everything was going to change, just like it always did.

Zoe’s device vibrated. She picked it up slowly, and read.

I was happy to be able to do it. –D (SENT 01:23:56 AM / OPENED 01:24:01 AM)

Originally published in Viewscreen Magazine on June 28, 2016. Original artwork by Aaron Taylor-Waldman.