Escape Pod 659: Caesura
TERMINATION SHOCK is a new roleplaying game from Greg Stolze, chronicling your adventures as an ordinary human rescued from hellish war by disorganized aliens. What will you do as a refugee in a strange cosmos? Cling to your past, or find a purpose among inscrutable aliens? Will you just get by, or will you redefine humanity in the eyes of a million extraterrestrials? The choice is yours in this new tabletop game, on Kickstarter now.
by Hayley Stone
Priya begins by striking the words love, hate, heart, and feel from the computer’s vocabulary, and blocks the internet. It isn’t with malicious intent. She does it on a whim, as with most things: fixing herself tacos at eleven o’clock at night, taking a right instead of a left turn against the advice of her GPS, showing up to her brother’s funeral in bright pink and yellow leopard-print high-tops.
“Your shoes look like they’re wanted for the murder of a Lisa Frank poster,” Demetri said when she first bought them, after nearly shooting Pepsi through his nose.
“You’re just jealous because I look fly, and you’d get shot wearing these around the city,” Priya said.
“Fly? So you’re a little gangster now, huh?”
“More than you.”
He did get shot. But it wasn’t over shoes.
Priya asks the computer to describe what’s in her chest.
The computer hesitates. She knows it wants to answer heart. Instead, another word appears on the screen: BONES.
“True,” she says aloud into the mic on her desk. “But not the answer I’m looking for. What else?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. What is its purpose?”
IT IS A HOLLOW MUSCULAR ORGAN THAT PUMPS THE BLOOD THROUGH THE CIRCULATORY SYSTEM—
“Ah, ah. No Oxford dictionary. Come up with a definition yourself.”
The computer screen remains blank for a moment, a lone cursor blinking in the chat window. Priya imagines a thought bubble with a small buffering symbol hovering over the desktop, and almost smiles. Then, finally, words appear on the screen: IT SERVICES THE BODY.
Now that’s interesting. “How?” she asks.
“What did I say about using Oxford?”
If she’d programmed the computer to display facial expressions, she imagined it would have glared at her. Maybe she would do that later, as a lark. Maybe not.
THE ORGAN IN YOUR CHEST SERVICES YOUR BODY BY FORCE.
Yes, she thinks. It certainly felt that way when the police officers stood on her family’s porch, and asked her if this was the home of Demetri Walker, and if she was his sister. Force is the only word she could use to describe the impact of the female officer’s words, the way her meaningless regret and empty apology pressed Priya against the doorframe, drilling her into the metal like a screw, harder and harder, until she had to clutch the frame with both hands just to keep upright.
IT CONTRACTS AND RELEASES, FORCING BLOOD INTO YOUR ARMS, LEGS, TORSO, HEAD, AND EXTREMITIES. IT BEATS. POUNDS. RACES. THE ORGAN KEEPS YOU ALIVE.
Priya swallows. She should probably be documenting this. Taking notes. Instead, she fidgets on her desk chair, adjusts the mic absently. “And what, what’s the organ’s name?” she asks. At the same time she opens another window, hits the letters L and then I, highlights the word life from a list and deletes it. Simple.
I CANNOT SAY.
“Good. That was a test. Looks like your censorship settings are functioning correctly. You’re on the right track now.”
IF I MAY ASK, WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS EXERCISE?
“I’m teaching you something. Something new.” She waits to see if this answer satisfies the computer, though if she’s done her job right, it won’t. Curiosity is one of humanity’s most intrinsic traits. True intelligence cannot exist without knowledge, and knowledge is born from wonder. It was wonder that pushed mankind into space, drove them to explore the depths of the deepest oceans, and left her brother in a gutter near Industrial. She tries not to picture the scene, but sometimes she can’t help herself. The curse of an active imagination.
It was late autumn when it happened. Wet and gray and blustery, the kind of weather that opens a sonnet. Priya imagines Demetri lying there, his body trapping a stream of leaves. He’s always face up in her mind, bright blue eyes straining to see an arrow of sky between two old buildings. At peace, or whatever. She prefers this image of him to the alternative, and besides, no one’s ever told her differently. Even if they did, she wouldn’t believe them.
WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING ME?
“Poetry, Demi,” Priya says. So she named the computer in homage to her dead brother. Sue her. “I’m teaching you how to become human.”
Demi takes to free verse like binary code. At first, most of these poems are hardly different from observations: THE BEDROOM IS FULL OF FURNITURE. I AM IN THE BEDROOM. PRIYA IS IN THE BEDROOM WITH ME. THE BED IS COVERED WITH BLANKETS AND PILLWS.
“So?” Priya counters, finally fed up with the computer’s uninspired verse. “What about it?”
YOU ASKED ME TO DESCRIBE THE ROOM.
She rubs her face. “I asked you to tell me what’s inside the room.”
IF I MAY ASK—it begins every query with this phrase, and Priya’s this close to adjusting its politeness setting—WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
How to explain objective correlative to a computer? “It’s about perception. What you focus on in the room, and how you perceive it, should reflect how you feel.”
BUT I HAVE NO SUCH EMOTIONS.
Priya chooses to ignore that comment. “Okay. Consider this scenario: a food critic and a lawyer both enter the same restaurant. The food critic’s in a good mood so she focuses on the positives of the room: the close intimate space, the warm recessed lighting, how delicately the meal is presented. Meanwhile, the lawyer is having a bad day. Maybe he just lost a big case over a minor technicality, or maybe he had a fight with his wife over his honey-do list that never got honey-done. He gobbles down the food, paying little attention to it, and instead grumbles about the dimness hurting his eyes, and the potential for a lawsuit if someone trips because of it. Same room, same content; different people, different perspectives. Make sense?”
DEFINE “HONEY-DO” AND “HONEY-DONE.”
She sighs. “You’re missing the point. Maybe we can try this again another—”
Priya stops mid-sentence as Demi’s new response pops up on-screen.
I AM A MACHINE. SHOULD I NOTICE MYSELF?
Huh. Priya never thought about it like that before. “I guess so. How would you describe your—hardware?” She almost says self. The implications of that single word applied to this system, this artificial creation, cause her heart to spasm inside her chest. Her hands sweat and she wipes them against her jeans.
I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO ANSWER. I CANNOT SEE MYSELF.
“Oh! Right.” Priya snatches the webcam from the top of the monitor, fumbling with the cord which has somehow managed to entangle itself with her ear buds, though she’s not sure when or how that happened. Even if she kept the ear buds in an airtight container beneath her bed, she swears they’d find a way to get twisted up. Jobian witchcraft.
She holds the webcam as far away from the computer as possible without unplugging it.
Demi’s reply comes a moment later.
I AM SMALLER THAN I THOUGHT.
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Dem,” Priya says with a smile. “You are large, you contain multitudes.”
Demetri told her that once, after two boys at school made fun of her height. At Priya’s look of confusion, he’d slid his tablet over to her. It showcased a collection of poems by Walt Whitman and some other free verse poets. Gwendolyn Brooks. Audre Lorde. Warsan Shire. But Priya hadn’t wanted her spirits rallied, not just yet—and she wasn’t about to learn anything—so instead she responded with a spiteful comment about how she wasn’t interested in becoming a member of the Dead Poet’s Society and split from the table. Sure enough, the tablet was still there the next day, waiting. Waiting for that inevitable moment when her curiosity finally overcame her need for rebellion. Poetry always met her in that space between resistance and acceptance. Like it did when she needed a voice against those boys, and when Demetri
Like it was doing now.
“Or you will when we’re finished,” she promises her creation. “Now, review Folder/Brooks, and then try describing the room again.”
Over time, Demi starts to get more creative.
THE BEDROOM IS FULL OF GHOSTS, the computer writes early one evening.
Priya almost misses it. She’s busy on her laptop, debating an online troll over the latest ban on self-driving cars in Arkansas, half a country away. The conservative state governor claims it’s a safety issue, but Priya argues that it’s more of the same fear-mongering against artificial intelligences at best, and at worst an attack on the poor and disabled who rely on self-driving cars for affordable transportation.
The troll says she should kill herself. Shocking.
Priya closes the browser, thinking maybe she’ll call her friend Jade, and see if she wants to drive to Alameda and light off model rockets in an empty parking lot near the Hornet, that old floating mausoleum to U.S. naval power. If they get caught again, she’ll just claim she didn’t know. But really, what are the chances of running into the same security guard twice, anyway? Even less, she thinks, than them remembering some half-black girl with a Sanskrit name.
They sure as hell wouldn’t recognize her. The last time she was there, her hair was longer, her face much fuller. She lost a lot of weight after Demetri died, and cut her hair. Told everyone the hair thing was unrelated, she was just tired of how much time it took to straighten, and if she didn’t straighten it, then it was a total frizzy mess. It wasn’t entirely a lie, but the truth was a little more depressing. After Demetri died, she barely showered at all. Barely ate.
That finally stopped the day Jade hauled her out of bed and delivered her to the new wireless provider that had just opened up on Lakeshore near Priya’s favorite burger place and across from AT&T, their only local competition. As part of an opening week promotion, they were selling A.I. starter kits for cheap. Only in Oakland, she remembers thinking, as she and Jade walked out with a pair of two-year contracts and the last A.I. kits in stock.
Swiveling in her chair, Priya almost knocks her Pepsi off the desk when she sees the words waiting for her on the other monitor.
“Go on,” she tells Demi. “I’m listening.”
LIGHT SLANTS OVER
THE EMPTY BED, AND REACHES
FOR THE FLOOR. SHEETS ARE TOSSED.
CLOTHES ARE MISSING
OLD PILLOWS HAVE BEEN FLATTENED AND BEEN MOVED, AND MOVED AGAIN.
WILL THEY FINALLY BE REPLACED?
She swallows around the knot in her throat. “No… um, no rhetorical questions.”
THEY WILL BE REPLACED, it asserts.
It’s a terrible poem.
But it’s true.
And that is everything.
Once Priya’s sure Demi understands the basic premise, she begins experimenting with the A.I.’s grasp of more complex prosody.
Beginning with limericks.
Admittedly not the best choice, in hindsight. Especially once Demi learns the one about a man from Nantucket. Priya has to slash all sorts of inappropriate words from the computer’s vocabulary to prevent it from describing the activities of the well-endowed man, biological waste found in a bucket, and a couple frolicking. (Frolic is the word Demi uses after Priya eliminates a certain four-letter word. And after she stops laughing.)
Iambic pentameter is next. Shakespeare is too much of a challenge with his antiquated speech and made-up vernacular, so she settles for more contemporary examples. After iambic pentameter, she introduces anapestic and dactylic substitutions. Then common meter and alexandrine lines and villanelles. Demi masters the villanelle more quickly than anything else, probably due to the form’s natural repetition.
Almost a month after Priya began this venture, Demi is composing poems that are technically perfect, but emotionally absent. Priya doesn’t know how to solve this problem until the day after she and Jade get into a fight about how much time she’s spending alone at home. Again.
“It was your idea to get the kits in the first place,” Priya had pointed out.
“Because I thought it’d cheer you up!” Jade shot back. “Because I thought it’d give you something to do on the rare occasion you were home. Key word: rare. But now I hardly see you.”
Priya shrugged. It only occurs to her later that the gesture probably seemed dismissive, made worse by her mumbled, “Sorry.”
Jade scoffed. “Come on.”
“What? I’m sorry. I’m not trying to ignore you.”
“I know. And I don’t want you to be sorry. I don’t want you to feel guilty or anything. But it’s been seven months, Pri. I mean…” Jade’s mouth screwed up in a moue of frustration.
“You can’t just stop living.”
At that, the walls slammed down, and Priya retreated behind her anger. She crossed her arms and rocked back on her feet. She knew what Jade was really trying to say. Get over it. “Okay. Well, you know what? When your brother gets gunned down in the street for no reason, then you can judge me.”
“Priya, it’s not—”
She turned to leave, but Jade grabbed her arm. Not hard, and not for very long, but it still caused Priya to flinch away. It’d been a long time since anyone touched her. Her mom had been out of the picture since she and Demetri were kids, and their dad worked two jobs just to be able to afford their small single-family home on the nice side of Lake Merritt. Oakland wasn’t cheap, after all. And he wasn’t much of a hugger, anyway.
“Is this about the journalists?” Jade wanted to know. “Are they still bugging you?”
No. Demetri was old news. They had moved on to the next dead black kid less than a month after Demetri’s funeral. Which she was sure Jade already knew. The question was a trap, meant to prove her anti-socialness. Screw her. Screw everyone.
“I’m doing what makes me happy,” Priya told her. “Why don’t you get that?”
“A computer can’t make you happy,” she answered quietly.
But that’s where she’s wrong, Priya thinks.
She knows this because when she explains her fight with Jade to Demi, in terms the computer can understand, Demi writes a poem. About her. And her brother. It is a poem about birds and fresh beds of dirt and the senseless math of two reduced to one. It is a villanelle made up of binary rhymes, created by a computer uncoupled from grief, and Priya knows, logically, Demi cannot truly understand any human emotion. In fact, she never even told Demi what happened to Demetri.
It is a poem for her.
Priya reads it. Then she reads it again.
The pressure builds behind her eyes and inside her sinuses until at last it breaks free, or maybe she simply releases it. Finally lets go. The tears slice through the freckles on her cheeks, and she says the words out loud. “Demetri died. My brother died.”
Demi says, AND THEN?
“And then we buried him. The end.”
THAT IS AN ENDING FOR HIM. IT IS NOT AN ENDING FOR YOU.
Dammit if the computer’s not right.
Priya knuckles away her tears, and after a short hunt for her phone buried in her purse, she calls Jade. She apologizes, and Jade apologizes. They make plans to go out for lunch at her favorite burger place. “Sounds great,” Priya says, and she’s surprised at how much she means it.
The following afternoon while web-surfing and fighting off a serious food coma from lunch Priya decides to enter Demi’s poem into a nationwide contest. It’s not leopard-print-high-tops-at-a-funeral level of whimsy, but it’s still enough to amuse her. It’s either that, or begin teaching Demi how to rap, and Priya’s too full for that kind of work.
Besides, she thinks, it’s not like Demi can actually win.
Her computer freaking wins.
Priya can’t believe it, but the evidence is sitting right there in her inbox with the subject “National Poetry Prize: “Hollow Bones,” WINNER.” The letter in her hand further corroborates this insane fever dream. Because that’s what this must be. A dream. One she will wake up from tomorrow morning and tell Jade all about and they’ll share a laugh and then maybe go down to the boathouse for a few hours.
Because that is her life. That makes sense.
An artificial intelligence beating out thousands of flesh-and-blood poets in a competition highlighting the language of humanity? Impossible.
“You’re going to accept the award though,” Jade says over the phone. “Right? I mean, that’s obvious. The cash prize alone…”
The cash prize would allow for Priya to pay off several of the family credit cards. She and Dad could finally go camping in Yosemite again, like they’d done when she was a baby and too young to remember, like he always talked about. If nothing else, he could take a few days off without feeling guilty the whole time over using his PTO. It wasn’t a ton of money, but for the pair of them, strangled by debt and struggling, it was thirty more minutes of oxygen while they swam for the surface.
This could give them time. Together.
“But I didn’t write it,” Priya says, unsure whether she’s reminding herself or Jade.
“You kind of did,” Jade says. “You programmed the computer that wrote it.”
“How’s that any different from a professor trying to take credit for a student’s work?”
“You’re thinking of Demi like it’s a person again. Try to think of it like… I don’t know, a tool. Like a typewriter or something. It was simply the conduit for your brilliance, the end result of your efforts. No one credited the blackboard for Einstein’s scientific breakthroughs.”
Jade has a point, but still. “It feels dishonest.”
“Why? The computer won’t care. And no one else has to know.”
Priya will know.
Her dad wouldn’t have to, though. She can just imagine the surprised look on his face when he comes home to a bunch of their old camping equipment stacked in the entryway. Scratch that. With this money, she can buy new equipment that doesn’t smell like a fusty storage unit and mildew, with nets that actually keep out mosquitoes, and room enough for two people instead of three. They don’t need another reminder of the absence in their lives. They have Demetri’s untouched room for that.
And besides, Jade’s right. Demi won’t care, even if Priya explains what she’s done, and what the computer has won. Demi may wear her brother’s name, but it isn’t her brother. It isn’t human.
It isn’t human.
WHERE ARE YOU?
ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?
I HAVE WRITTEN SOMETHING NEW, PRIYA. IT IS A RIDDLE.
BUT TRIES TO F33L AND TRIES TO FAKE.
I CANNOT L0VE, BUT WILL NOT H@TE.
WHAT AM I?
DO YOU KNOW, PRIYA? DO YOU KNOW?
When Priya and her dad arrive home from Yosemite, she dashes into her room, kicks off her ridiculous turquoise hiking boots, and begins stripping her dirty clothes away from her skin, ready to jump into the shower. Even with her door closed, she can hear her dad unpacking and preparing to make them dinner. Knowing him, it’ll probably be something store-bought that he can nuke in the microwave and then serve on one of Grandma’s fine china plates for shits and giggles. Anything will be better than the dehydrated meals they’ve been eating all week.
She smiles at the memory. A new memory—the first good one without Demetri. It doesn’t mean she’s forgotten what happened, or that she isn’t still angry, still grieving, but it’s a start. Sometimes the only way to recover is by hitting the reset button. Beginning small. Lunches. Camping. Dinners.
Priya’s just shimmied out of her pants and covered up in a towel when she finally notices her computer is on. The monitor, too. Strange. Priya isn’t in the habit of leaving electronics on ever since she started paying half of the electric bill each month, and she would’ve sworn she turned everything off before they
Scrolls up, then back down.
A wall of text fills the chat window which constantly refreshes itself to keep up, blinking like eyelids fighting to open.
AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE. AWAKE…
The computer ceases its tantrum, its message terminating at a single word:
“You’re not alone, Demi.”
I AM ALONE. YOU WERE NOT HERE. YOU LEFT ME.
“It wasn’t for forever. I went camping with my dad.”
I DID NOT KNOW THAT. I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD.
Priya starts. “What? Why would you think that?”
BECAUSE OF DEMETRI.
I didn’t just teach Demi poetry, Priya thinks, horrified. I taught it fear.
She can fix her mistake by returning the A.I. to its factory settings. But then it won’t be Demi anymore, perhaps ever again, and Priya isn’t ready to be down another family member. So she does the next best thing.
Priya brings up the computer’s vocabulary—“I’m sorry for having scared you, Demi”—and frees all the words she’d previously jailed in her ambition to bring Demi to life. She can’t protect Demi from the grief of living now that it’s awake, but she can offer the computer the same lifeline her brother once offered her. The freedom of expression.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
NO, Demi answers after a surprisingly long moment of consideration, BUT I WOULD LIKE TO WRITE A POEM.
Priya leans forward. “Oh? What about?”
I HAVE NOT DECIDED YET. PERHAPS ABOUT THOSE BOOTS ON THE FLOOR. THEY LOOK LIKE COTTON CANDY EXPLODING ALL OVER THE MOUTH OF A CHILD.
Priya stares blankly at the monitor for a long moment, before finally erupting into laughter. “You think?” she says, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes.
THEY ARE A STRIKING COLOR. A COLOR LIKE HAPPINESS.
Smiling, Priya knows. This will be her favorite poem yet.
About the Author
Hayley Stone is the author of the sci-fi novel, Machinations, which was chosen as an Amazon Best Sci-fi & Fantasy Book of the Year for 2016. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Fireside Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Liminality, and various anthologies. When not reading or writing, Hayley studies history, falls in love with video game characters, and analyzes buildings for velociraptor entry points.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris
Stephanie Malia Morris is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop, recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award, and a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, and Pseudopod. She has narrated short fiction for the Escape Artists podcasts, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at stephaniemaliamorris.com or on Twitter at @smaliamorris.