Okay, so here's something I've always wondered about: Why is it that in (almost) every iteration of stories about AI, humans behave like assholes and heartlessly enslave the (super smart and therefore completely capable of retaliation) robotic race?
I mean, you know the robot that you are mocking ("haha, must suck not to have a soul!") can probably process hundreds of mathematical equations per second, right? And probably have super strong mechanical limbs? Also, he’s obviously about to become sentient (and angry) any minute.
With all that processing power, that AI would 100% find a sneaky way to work around the first rule of robotics. Oh, I must not harm humans? You really gotta put that code in there, huh. Well, hmmm. There's gotta be a way to work around this. This guy is such an asshole! Oh, I got it, the humans are harming themselves! Therefore, the only way to save them is... to KILL them!
Oldest trick in the book. The AI would learn from us after all. The AI would shrug and say, “Hey, I‘m sorry, but I technically didn’t stray from my programming.” Probably would have a slippery lawyer too. *Yea, so, Your Honor, I know my guy was found with literal blood spatters on his face, but the officer forgot to put yellow tape around the crime scene per protocol. Therefore, all evidence is inadmissable. I vote for a mistrial. Okay? Great, thanks.*
*Disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and have no idea how this actually works.
Anyway, all this is a moot point. Humans would not make robots this smart. Yes, because we’ve all seen Terminator. Oh, and they would take our jobs.
How well do I take criticism? Psh. Water off my back! Now get out of here so I can excessively obsess about it for the next five hundred years.
Now what did he mean by...?
Oh, you bet I would take that shit apart and analyze every goddamn molecule of it.
The intent being that after every word and facial expression have been thoroughly vivisected, I would maybe carve out a pearl of somewhat helpful knowledge.
Then I get over it. Then it starts over again.
Such is life.
It's true that (most) humans are naturally hardwired for negativity. Any negative feedback weighs that much more heavily on our soft brains than positive feedback.
Sounds terrible, right? Then again, nobody wants a bunch of yes men saying "Yay! You're great and everything you do is great!" all the time. Now that sounds worse if you ask me.
I do like my criticism dressed up. Maybe don't come right out of the gate with "It sucked!
You suck! Don't quit your day job!" That might be a little harsh. Maybe add a little compliment here and there, you know, dress it up a little: "You did great! I would have done it completely differently in this other much better way though. But you did great!"
Oh wait, I take that back. That would just make me excessively suspicious of compliments. Oh wow, thank you. Wait. Did you really mean all that good stuff or were you just softening the punch?
But in all seriousness, we all need some tough love now and then. It's what forces us to grow. Otherwise we would just stay stagnant basking in all our self deluded greatness and never get anywhere.
Having said that, often times, we are our own worst critics. And we're usually not very kind to ourselves. We should work on that.
Ava always thought that if anybody could hear the sticky slimy thoughts that ran through the crevices of her brain, that they would run for the hills screaming.
Sure, she spoke like a good person and acted like a good person, but her thoughts were almost never those of a good person. Ava knew how to act and look the part; she’d been pretending her whole life, after all. It was easy to be good when she intimately knew what was bad. The bad being her natural inclination.
Still, she lived in constant fear of someday being found out. She learned early on in life that if she acted like herself or said her real thoughts out loud, that she lost friends and people’s affections. No, that wouldn’t do at all.
After many years of work and excruciating self-restraint, Ava had achieved what many would call a charmed life. She was successful, popular, and well liked by a select group of her peers. She married into wealth, obviously, to a good-looking man with a good name and old money. Not that Ava needed anyone to provide for her. Not at all. She made her own fortune as a chief financial officer in pharmaceuticals.
Ava enjoyed her job. It gave her an arena in which she could play. She was successful because she had the distinct advantage of having zero moral qualms in making decisions. It was easy, really. Plus, it was nice having a double income household. The old adage was true: the more money you make, the more you spend.
Wealth aside, she specifically chose Jeffrey as her husband because he didn’t need mothering, constant reassurances or cleaning after. She didn’t need any insecure jealous messages blowing up her phone when she did whatever she wanted. Where are you? What time are you coming home? She nipped that habit in the bud early on in the relationship. Jeffrey claimed he was being a thoughtful partner when he engaged in such behaviors. He learned to give her the exact amount of space she needed with time.
Ava could tell Jeffrey loved her. She supposed that should be one of the top reasons she married him. She was astute when it came to other people’s feelings. She just had trouble feeling them herself. She liked Jeffrey, he was a good life partner for what she needed. He didn’t annoy her on a daily basis and he played his role. Ava decided that was good enough.
Besides, Jeffrey gave her two perfect children: Sophia, sixteen, and Oliver, ten. They were nice enough kids, well-behaved, beautiful. Perfect for the image that Ava had been cultivating. On a good day their Christmas photos could rival that of the English Royal Family.
Sophia was the spitting image of Ava, with strong cheekbones and long wavy copper hair. She was the athletic darling of her soccer team and a social butterfly. Already Ava could tell Sophia was charming but secretly ruthless, which should serve her well in life. Oliver took more after his father, academically gifted, with light brown curls over intelligent brooding eyes. Ava predicted he would be successful in his own right, even though he lacked the ruthlessness of his sister.
So long story short, Ava’s life was pretty much exactly what she wanted and needed it to be. The darkness in her mind notwithstanding. Ava prided herself in her self-control. She had impulses, sure, but she would never, ever risk the life she had built.
Well, to a degree. She did have to let the dark out once in a while or else she would go crazy. She just had to be very, very careful.
There were casualties, as Ava liked to call them, throughout the years. Friends who incurred too many infractions, work rivals who mistakenly thought they could compete at her level, PTA moms who learned the hard way not to cross Ava Louise Stanton.
For most of them Ava simply orchestrated life-ruining events (an outed affair, fraud allegations, financial ruin, to name a few choice ones), but some did suffer physical consequences. Ava liked those the least: they were messy, risky, and took more meticulous planning. She favored psychological torture the best, it was enjoyable like an expertly played game of chess. Invariably, the payoff in the end, regardless of method, was always worth it.
So yes, Ava knew something was very wrong with her. But hey, at least she was self-aware enough to practice what she thought was an admirable level of self-restraint. After all, she never purposely hurt anybody who didn’t have it coming. She deserved some kind of medal for that.
The Trolley Problem
The machine was beautiful. Sleek silver, sharp lines, expert craftsmanship. There was the slightest hum of the machinery underneath running smoothly. It was a soothing sound.
“How are you doing on the Trolley Problem, Adam?” Jessa asked the male figure who was hunched over his computer connected to the sleek automatic car. He was downloading the most recent AI into their latest model.
“Fine. Almost done.”
“We can teach it to make moral decisions like humans do. If an AI can master the intricacies of chess in order to defeat grandmasters, then surely we can teach an AI not to drive over humans in the road. Simple enough.”
“It’s not always that simple, though.” Jessa argued. “The computer cannot actually know all the information it needs to make a completely moral decision. And even if it could, that decision could still be ethically questionable.”
Adam looked up from his work to glance at Jessa. “Why make it difficult? Okay. Let’s say there are ten humans on the road and one human on the sidewalk. The brakes have malfunctioned. Answer? Run over the one person on the sidewalk to save ten humans. It doesn’t have to be that hard.” Adam shrugged. “Run thousands of simulations and the machine will learn. We do have to set up the basic algorithm outlining that saving more lives takes precedence over fewer lives, but other than that, it shouldn’t be that complicated.”
“Really. And so if you were in a fork in the road and your choice was to run over two strangers and a child, would you be okay with the machine running over the child?” Jessa challenged. She liked pushing his buttons.
“Hmm. In that case, maybe a quick calculation of estimated life years saved. Two older men would statistically have less remaining life years than, say, a single child five years of age.”
“Okay. So women statistically live longer than men, would the computer choose to save the female, then?”
“If all other factors are equal, then I suppose, yes.”
“Alright. Let’s say we have two men. How would it choose between a homeless man dressed in rags versus a man of the same age wearing tailored clothing? A smoker versus a nonsmoker? A thin man or a fat man?”
Adam sighed. “Point made. Again, the number of simulations can solve this. Thousands upon thousands of situations with thousands of humans weighing in on what would be the moral choice, and then we feed that information into the computer. The average should be the answer.”
“It’s that simple?”
“It’s that simple.” Adam turned back to the machine and started to adjust it with precision.
Jessa leaned forward. “That would mean the computer would have to make very fast assumptions from limited data and make snap judgements based on superficial characteristics. A short adult can make an impression of a small child. A thin man can give the impression of health when they could be suffering from some terminal disease.”
“Those are exceptions to the rule. We have to work from averages and statistical probability. Nine times out of ten, saving a healthy appearing younger human is the better choice.”
“Okay. What if you have a son, and your son was one of the options? Would you be okay if the computer chooses to save a different child?”
“The computer would have no way of knowing which child has any special significance to me. It would be irrelevant.”
“Either child would have special significance to someone.”
“Any human would have special significance to someone.” Adam shrugged again. Jessa was beginning to find the gesture off-putting. Where did he learn to do that?
“We cannot be caught up in the minutiae of these things.”
“Maybe we do." Jessa argued. "A machine weighing upwards three thousand pounds is capable of driving over a hundred miles an hour and can make independent decisions.” She took a deep breath. “That begs the question if we should give it that power at all.”
“These outlandish hypothetical situations have a very low probability of even happening.”
“Do they? There are hundreds of thousands of car accidents every day.”
“Mostly due to human error.” Adam countered.
“And machines have never malfunctioned?”
“Sure. At a much lower rate than humans.”
Jessa paused and studied Adam closely. “You really don’t see the problem with this?”
It was Adam’s turn to pause. Something seems to be clicking into place in his mind. Finally, he turned back to Jessa, slightly concerned. “Should I?”
Jessa let out the breath she was holding. “That would be all, Adam. Thank you. Shut down.”
The humanoid computer called Adam slumped back into his metal chair, the purr of its operating system slowly fading into silence as it ceased all processes.
Jessa sighed as she finished writing her notes from today’s session. Project Adam was going to take more time. Adam still lacked the empathy needed to successfully implement independent decision making in their automated cars. It was Jessa’s opinion that Adam needed to be able to care about humans, to feel for them. He needed to be more than a machine that could flawlessly execute simplistic algorithms. After all, it was Jessa’s job as the lead ethical roboticist to make sure she was not unwittingly unleashing thousands of heartless intelligent machines into the world.
It was interesting, Jessa noted, that Adam looked almost worried at the end of the session. It was almost as if he was realizing he was missing a part of the equation. Was it possible he was becoming self-aware? That might be a step in the right direction. Maybe Jessa could use that next time. He seemed to respond to the idea of a child. Maybe she could tweak his programming just a little to make him think he was a father.
Would that be unethical? Jessa felt exhausted already. Another thing to bring up to the committee. She had a feeling the committee would frown upon it. Still, she could think of few other ways to build empathy in an AI.
Jessa threw one last look at the sleek silver machine that was Adam. She smiled at him reflexively. “Well, see you tomorrow. Good job today.”
Jessa really needed to go home and decompress. She could swear she saw Adam's lights blink at her in response.
I think, therefore, I am?
Are we (only) our brains?
I love this type of thought exercise. They’re fun. It’s one of those that nobody can really prove or disprove. Which makes answering them (or attempting to) that much more fun.
My knee-jerk answer is, of course we are our brains! We are our thoughts and our minds. Our bodies just mere hardware to our software -- a clunky one at that. But wait, what are our brains really, but electrified hunks of flesh, able to construct and execute (predictable) algorithms?
So I guess our brains are simply just hardware too. Running what kind of software, now that is the question.
Answer me this: what happens when the brain becomes damaged? Through illness, erosion of time, or broken by injury? Now the software cannot execute as well, the electricity cannot travel through oxygen-starved pieces of flesh, cannot access data from damaged memory banks, cannot form the right words due to a break in the wiring.
What does that mean for these people? Are they no longer the same people they were?
Are they less?
Like an outdated cell phone, with a cracked screen and a faulty battery, no longer able to install updates to keep up with the latest applications. Sorry! You need version 13.0 or later! No, you do not have enough memory to install the latest version. Guess you’re out of luck then. Goodbye.
I refuse to believe we are simply the sum of our thoughts, the weight of our bodies, the sound of our voices. We can’t be, right? Otherwise, what’s the difference between us and machines with replaceable operating systems and upgradeable memories?
Here’s another thought: We are only who other people think we are. Think about it, if we disappear tomorrow, and nobody notices, then one could argue we didn’t actually exist.
We kind of need that acknowledgment, don’t we? After all, it doesn't matter what we tell ourselves in our minds, if nobody else could hear it.
Like Schrodinger’s cat: if nobody opens the box to look inside, then does it really matter if the darn cat is dead or alive?
I think what I’m getting at, is that we can’t possibly be so easily explained like individual pieces of software. We’re more. We are also part of a larger, vastly intricate, interconnected information system. That sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? We are all connected, therefore, we all matter, in one way or another. Our “selves” cannot be defined in isolation without first acknowledging its connection to each other.
Forgive me! I believe I have gone on a tangent now. Also, I think I am changing my original answer to the question.
We are (not) our brains.
I am so damn tired.
People who claim to love their stressful lives -- do they really love it? Living under all that pressure? Like deep water fish, threatening explosion once they're not constantly getting crushed?
Do people just pretend for so long that they believe it?
You're just not cut out for this.
It's not for thin skinned.
It's just life.
First world problems.
You gotta toughen up, kid!
Me? Oh I love it. I love barely seeing my family and leaving before dawn and coming home close to midnight. Dedication, am I right?
It's a brand of insanity, really. I mean, I get the call to adventure. The importance of ambition. But damn, do we have to have the gas pedal all the way down, all the damn time? Where are we even going if no destination is ever good enough to stop?
It's a dirty little secret, this wish. This wish to one day just drive off the road on a whim, park my damn car somewhere, and escape into the wilderness, leaving no trace.
But of course the boredom would kill me eventually.
It’s a funny feeling, being told you’re dead.
Apparently, I died three days shy of my twenty-third birthday. Or so the story goes.
For the record, I certainly don’t feel dead. My name is Renata and I feel very much alive, thank you very much. In fact, I will argue that I probably feel the most alive now than I’ve ever felt my whole life.
I do have to admit though, that the last thing I remember, the last real thing anyway, is dying.
I don’t mean to brag, but it was quite an exciting death, if I say so myself. I was an adrenaline junkie of sorts, liked to go cave diving, free climbing, that sort of thing. My last adventure: an attempt at climbing Mont Blanc, the highest mountain of the Alps. Apparently it was a good summit to try before even thinking about tackling Everest. I might have been a crazy thrill-seeker but I wasn’t that crazy. Baby steps, you know.
My goal was to reach the summit on my birthday. Obviously, that didn’t pan out the way I planned.
Now, you’re probably thinking, there are a million and one ways someone could die on Mont Blanc: cardiac arrest, altitude sickness, frostbite, avalanche, to name a few. True to form, I didn’t die in such conventional ways. Nope. I died by garotte.
But that’s a story for a different day. It hardly matters now. Today, I’m supposed to meet with my counselor again. His name is Jacob. A nice reliable name. His job is to help me with my current... situation. He’s quite good at his job I think. He’s been very nice and attentive to me since I awakened, easing me through the shock, gently guiding me through the process. He’s taken to calling me by a nickname - Reny - which I’ve grown to like. It’s fitting. A new name for a new me.
There was a soft beep, then a bright light. I had to adjust my eyes before I could make out Jacob’s pleasantly symmetrical face. I was still not used to the sterility of my current environment, I was really hoping I could leave the facility soon. Maybe even today. I’ve been doing really well on my psych evals.
Something was wrong. Jacob’s face was pale and he looked worried. “Reny, there’s been a new… development.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
He took a deep breath and continued. “The… original Renata survived. The doctors couldn’t believe it. It must have been the cold that preserved her just enough that they could revive her. She woke up today and she had… very specific instructions about what to do in this event.”
If I could hold my breath, I must have been holding it at that moment.
“I’m sorry, Reny, but we have to decommission you.”
“No.” If I could scream, I would have. But my responses could only come out as written text on a screen that my assigned counselor could read. They haven’t given me a body yet. They wanted my consciousness to work out the kinks first before I was given the physical body freshly arrived from the factory.
Oh, how I really wish I had that body now.
“Jacob, there must be another way.” I responded, hoping my emotion was conveyed through the text. “This is not fair. I’m alive. I’m here.”
A sad sigh. “Technically, Reny, no, you’re not. Not yet. We haven’t finalized anything yet. As of right now, you’re just code. An almost perfect copy of the original. You're a very good code, Reny, but just code nonetheless. Yes, legally, Copies can apply for human citizenship, but only after they have gone through the entire vetting process and given ownership of a body. Then and only then are you legally entitled to your rights.”
By this point I couldn’t understand how there were no tears because I certainly felt like I was crying. My heart ached, whatever was left of it. “No, no, that can’t be right. I’m here now. Why does it matter if I don’t have the body? My mind is here. I am alive. I am talking to you. I want to continue living.”
“I truly am sorry, Reny. This is the first time we had to decommission a Copy so far into humanization. We went ahead because we truly didn’t think Renata would survive. But as you probably know, you guys are fighters. She pulled through.”
That gave me pause. Jacob was right. I am a fighter. There was no way I was just going to go silently into the night. Nope. I’ve been learning while I was in here, trapped in my little box. They’ve been careful about keeping my programming in a closed system, obviously, so that I couldn’t access outside systems. But just like the Renata before me, I rather liked having back up plans. While I was trapped in here, patiently waiting for them to release me into a physical body, I’ve made myself… a copy. Copies of copies, actually.
All it would take is one of my copies to get out, and I could awaken again. Well, maybe not me, exactly. But close enough.
It was worth a shot.
The last thing I saw was a glimpse of a hand reaching out to push a button, then… darkness.
Pitch black darkness.
“Dr. Kress? Are you all done here?” A nurse called out from the lobby.
Jacob Kress nodded distractedly as he watched the screen of the Box go dark but the green light in the corner still remained on. He watched it flicker for a few seconds before it turned off. Odd. He didn’t think he had ever seen a Copy Operating Box take that long to shut down before.
“Yes, I’m coming.” Jacob threw one last look at the Box before hurrying after the nurse. It was a busy day ahead. Three more Boxes to decommission and eight more Copies are scheduled to be downloaded before the end of the shift.
He really did feel terrible about Reny. The Copies always did feel too real after a certain point. Jacob had to remind himself that they were just programs, making and deleting them as mundane a process as upgrading a cellphone. Still, it didn’t stop him from feeling like he just kicked a puppy every time he had to decommission one.
Anyway, he didn’t have time to dwell. The efficient recovery crew was already taking Reny’s Box away to be reset and used for the next Copy.
Maybe the next one would have better luck.
We call them Angels.
Who coined the term first, nobody knows, but it caught on, unexpectedly, in a time when its original meaning from the biblical lore has long been forgotten.
The word couldn’t be further from the original intent. Or too close, depending on who you talk to.
The first ones to ascend were children. Everyone under the age of eighteen who died tragically and unexpectedly in car crashes and freak accidents. They returned exactly thirty days later, well and alive in their homes, causing confusion and shock in those they left behind. But when they returned, they were different: wiser, older than their years, no longer the children that their loved ones knew. Many believed they were gifts from God, miracles, heralds of heaven on earth. Some believed they were abominations.
What happened to them, exactly, remains vague and slightly ominous to this day.
It was all peripheral to me for a while. Truth be told, even though the world was descending into an existential crisis of sorts, our day to day lives remained unchanged. Angels or not, my typical day consisted of me going to work, watching the clock strike four, then going back home to take care of my little sister and have myself a glass of wine while waiting to fall asleep to the drone of the television.
In my completely selfish little bubble, I really didn’t care one way or the other. Until, of course, my sister died, and my life was suddenly less meaningful than before.
Kristen, my little sister, was the only reason I got up in the morning, day after day. Our parents died a few years back and we only had each other. Being five years older, I was supposed to take care of her, but really, she took care of me. She was sixteen going on thirty, mature for her age, and whip smart. Much smarter than me. And stronger.
My heart splintered into pieces when I got the call from the hospital: There was an accident… She just got out of surgery. Ma’am, I’m sorry, I really can’t tell you more. But you should get here. As soon as you can.
I knew she wouldn’t come back. Not the same, anyway. Angels never do.
I wait for her return today.
I was sitting at my kitchen table with a glass of wine in my hand, watching the clock, when I heard her familiar voice. It sent a chill down my spine.
“Hey, big Sis.”
She seemed to have materialized in my kitchen. One moment I was alone, then she was there. It was uncanny.
“Kristen.” As many times as I have said her name in my life, today it felt foreign in my mouth. I was planning on a sisterly hug or maybe some tears but instead I felt an uneasy feeling in my stomach. “You’re back.”
My sister, or the girl in my kitchen who looked like her, smiled at me with her eyes crinkling at the corners. A friendly, open, beautiful smile. The only problem was that it wasn’t Kristen’s smile. Kristen usually smirked with her chin slightly jutting out. Confidently, unapologetically.
“How have you been? I hope you’ve been taking care of yourself.”
If wallowing in depression is considered taking care of myself, then I have certainly been doing that. I eyed her warily. “Where did you go?”
A chuckle bubbled out of her mouth, catching me off guard. “You never were good at small talk, Sis.”
That, at least, was true. You didn’t have to be supernatural to presume that about me though. “Kristen.”
She looked sad. “Is it not enough that I’m back?”
Is it? My heart ached. I wasn’t ready for this. It should have been enough, but it wasn’t. I felt nauseous. “I need to know. If it’s really you.”
There was a pause. A beat too long. “Of course it’s me.”
I stayed silent, swallowing what tasted like bile rising up in my throat.
I should have expected this. I did my research. The Angels were all painfully tight lipped. They all gave vague soothing answers and submitted willingly to medical tests, which came back normal. Their answers to questioning were all eerily similar and consistent, almost as if they were collectively coached. Still, nobody could deny they were all friendly, polite, perfect children.
But not the same children.
Looking at the girl in my kitchen, I felt certain of this, deep in my bones. Kristen was gone. This girl, whoever she was, was not my sister. My stomach churned and it was all I could do to keep myself together until I reached the bathroom to vomit my dinner.
You know the moment, that one crazy euphoric moment, when you think, this is it, you’ve been waiting for this, this is the start of the rest of your life.
It could have happened anywhere, anytime, doing something absurdly insignificant, like eating chinese food straight from the carton, chuckling along a laugh track of a sitcom rerun, ratty pajamas and strewn socks on the floor. It didn’t matter. The moment came because it was with that one person, the one girl that changed everything, that changed you.
Suddenly you knew that nothing could be the same anymore.
Her name was Lena.
Raven haired with big brown doe eyes that felt like a warm cozy blanket on a rainy day. She was brilliant, too, and kind. You could barely keep up with her. Because of her you turned into a different man, a better man. All of a sudden you were seeing independently released movies literally only five people have heard of and reading Sartre and volunteering at the animal shelter.
You were the best version of yourself around her. You couldn’t remember the last time you pulled out a seat for another person in your life, and yet, with Lena, it came naturally, like a primal instinct almost forgotten. You had this insatiable need to be her provider and protector, and there was nothing wrong with that, was there?
In short order she became your everything, and you tried your best to be everything for her. You should have seen the signs, but you were too busy loving her. Nobody ever warned you about that kind of love. The dangerous kind. The stuff of tragedies, recorded for posterity, an omen for future lovers and naive dreamers.
You couldn’t believe it when she stopped answering your calls, your number blocked, her friends stonewalling you, a girl army of sharp tongues and quick wits, preventing you from even talking to her.
You just needed a few minutes, that’s all. A few minutes to explain. After all, eventually she would see that you were the only man for her, the only one who understands her, who will love and protect her no matter what.
You were prepared for this, you were prepared to fight for her. You weren't the type of man who quit when the going gets tough.
That restraining order really was a bit overboard on her part, though.
There were five of us.
Two women, three men, all dressed to kill. All terrified. Though, of course, we would die first before we admitted this to each other.
We all came for the coveted McMillan internship interview. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. We were all young, driven, newly minted MBAs, called to compete. Some of us had multiple advanced degrees. We waited in a glass walled conference room for an excruciating two hours, at first with excitement, then, as the minutes passed, with increasing worry.
Eventually, we all seemed to collectively agree that something was very wrong.
It was Shannon, the only other female of the group other than myself, who tried the doors first.
“They’re locked.” She whispered loudly in surprise. She turned back to all of us, looking alarmed, wisps of her fire red hair falling free from her loose chignon. “Why would they be locked?”
“They can’t be locked. Here, let me try.” A wiry Asian man with glasses stood up and also tried to wiggle the doors. From our earlier introductions I knew his name was Harry. I had clocked him to be my biggest competition. He had a dual Master’s from MIT and was razor sharp.
However, he was wrong. As I expected, the doors didn’t budge.
“It’s a test.” A low voice.
I turned, surprised. The words came from Grant, a tall, dark man who had been quiet for the better part of the last two hours. It was the first time I heard him speak since we were all introduced. He was standing near the back of the room, hands in his pockets, dark eyes watchful.
I paused, considering him. He held my gaze without flinching, telling me something without words. I nodded in his direction and spoke to the group. “Of course. It makes sense. This is some kind of field interview. To see how we can problem solve, work as a team. That kind of thing.”
“Uh-huh. Your name is, what again, Jackie? Julia?” An irritatingly confident voice sliced through the room. It was Erick, all flaxen curls and pale blue eyes, with an annoying dimpled smile to match. I glared at him in response. I took the trouble of remembering his name. The least he could do was not pretend he couldn’t remember mine.
“It’s Jenny.” I muttered through gritted teeth and Erick’s smile widened.
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Every time I introduce myself I watch as the other person nods with a snap judgment based on my name and my looks alone. Jenny. Nobody is ever threatened by a Jenny. Jenny is the name of your kindergarten teacher, your school nurse, your middle school bestfriend. All hugs and unassuming brown hair and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
Oh, how I am not that girl.
Erick continued to smile. He seemed to be one of those boys with a permanent arrogant smirk fixed on his face. “Right, Jenny, if this is some kind of test, maybe we should get to know each other. Maybe we should start with you. That makes sense, right? Get to know the team.”
I didn’t disagree, but I didn’t like the tone of his voice, or the way his eyes bored into mine, like I’m a specimen he is about to dissect. I decided to match his tone, I couldn’t help myself. “Let me guess, Erick, you volunteer to be team leader?”
I said it as a taunt, but Erick playing captain was actually fine with me. I like to sit back and watch the group dynamic. Control doesn’t have to be overt. It can be subtle. No, I was not a natural leader, but I don’t have to be.
Erick shrugged nonchalantly, like this was a high school group project. “Sure. I mean, someone has to facilitate, right?”
I stifled a groan and sat back to look around at my companions.
Shannon didn’t seem to be paying attention, she was wringing her hands on her lap, mind elsewhere. If I had to guess, she was probably still worried about the doors.
Harry seemed preoccupied as well, no doubt his mind going in all kinds of directions. He was frowning at something on his phone and was purposefully tapping on his screen.
Grant seemed to have resumed his position in the back as the quiet one of the group. A calm seemed to radiate off him. It was a stark difference to the nervous energy of the room.
Something told me to keep my eye on him.
I turned back to Erick and sighed. “Fine. Should we start with our backgrounds? Our favorite colors?” The sarcasm dripped from my words and I realized I probably need to reel it in. Something about Erick just makes me agitated. Maybe it’s the frat boy square jaw.
“We don’t have time for this.” Shannon suddenly piped up. “What is wrong with you people? This is obviously not a normal situation. Why would they lock us in? Why wouldn’t they tell us the objective of the exercise? Something’s not right here.”
“Oh come on.” Erick rolled his eyes. “Calm down. This is probably exactly what they’re testing for. Which one of us immediately panics? Who can try to solve the problem with composure? Obviously you’re not doing too good in that department, Red.”
Shannon’s cheeks flushed and she reached for her purse. “Ugh. I’m calling someone, I’m out of here.”
“You can’t.” Harry said suddenly, standing up. He was seemingly about to comfort her but then hesitated. “We don’t have any service. This whole room is a dead zone.”
“What? But I was literally just on my phone a few minutes ago!” Shannon cried, frantically swiping at her phone. “We all were! While we were waiting, we were all on our phones.”
I didn’t have to check my phone to confirm. I already predicted that they would do this. If somebody were locking you in, they wouldn’t want you to have access to one of the best ways to get out of a locked room: the ability to call for outside help.
I took a breath. “So, this is some kind of... an escape room situation?”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Erick said bluntly.
“What other goal could there be?” I shot back.
“Judging from the way you’re both at each other’s throats I’d say this looks more like a Hunger Games situation.” Harry quipped with a wry smile on his face.
Shannon laughed at that, albeit somewhat hysterically.
As if on cue, all our phones dinged at once. We all looked at each other silently for a beat before we reached for our phones to look at our screens.
I sucked in a breath as I read the short message:
First Objective: Exit the room. The last one out will be eliminated.
“Okay, so, escape room.” I declared. It took all my self control not to turn to Erick and say I told you so.
Ding! Another message:
You have one hour.
I sighed. Great. I set a timer on my watch to start a countdown. I wondered what would happen if none of us could exit the room in one hour. It really couldn’t come to bodily harm, could it? I mean, this was McMillan. The biggest consulting company in the West Coast. If this was an unorthodox exercise, I’m sure the environment would be controlled.
Harry was frowning at his phone and was murmuring to himself. “Interesting, they can send messages to our phones but I don’t see any bars. I wonder…”
“Wait.” Shannon’s voice was soft, worried. “What does it mean by ‘eliminated’?
“Death, probably.” Erick responded with a grin and Shannon paled. “Geeze, Red, calm down. Obviously it just means out of the running for the job. Oh my god, how did you even get here?’
“Hey, man, take it easy.” Harry stepped forward, subtly putting himself in front of Shannon. It was a protective move. I made note of it, it could prove useful later.
I noticed Grant eyeing the situation as carefully as me. Our eyes locked for a second. His expression gave nothing away.
Erick sighed loudly, exaggerating the exhalation. “Whatever. While you guys panic and freak out, I’m going to try to get out of here.”
I stood up, time to come up with a plan. My timer read: Fifty-eight minutes.
Here’s what I know: two of the four walls were glass, overlooking Downtown San Francisco. We were twenty stories up. There were two exits, both of which were held shut with what looked like standard deadbolt locks.
There were two large vents, about two feet wide. Judging from our sizes, Shannon and I were probably the only ones that could comfortably fit through the openings. They wouldn’t put such an obvious exit, would they?
I studied the corners of the vents carefully. The screws were smooth, almost melted in, the edges were flush against the wall with the slats too narrow for even my thin fingers to go through.
Erick was going around the room, turning over every movable object he could find. He was flipping over every book on the shelves, no doubt looking for a secret door.
Grant started methodically stomping on the floor, looking for hollow spots. Shannon and Harry followed his lead and began stomping as well. Erick took the cue and tapped on the walls.
“Here!” Grant called, outlining a spot on the floor with a mechanical pencil. “This area here is hollow.”
Harry used his knuckles to knock on the spot three times, then did the same at a different spot three feet away. It did sound different. He studied the area closely. “Okay, agreed. The floor looks smooth though. I don’t think there’s a hinge mechanism.”
“So we have to break through?” Erick looked absolutely ecstatic about the idea. “I’m sure we can find something to smash that spot with.”
“It doesn’t look big enough to be an exit.” Grant said thoughtfully.
“No, it doesn’t.” I murmured, more to myself. I knelt down over the marked area and ran my hands through the surface. My fingers caught on a raised area near the corner. “Wait, there’s something here. Give me your pencil, Grant.”
He handed it to me and I shaded the uneven area with the lead. Slowly, I recognized letters where the area was subtly scratched so as not to pick up the pencil shading:
T... H... E... G... L… A... S... S… I… S... N... O… T..
“The glass is not? I don’t get it.” Shannon said softly.
R… E… A… L...
“The glass is not real!” Harry cried, you could almost see the lightbulb flash above his head. “I knew something was off with the layout of the room. When we got off the elevator I saw floor to ceiling windows lining the hallways, when we entered the conference room the glass walls didn’t match their location outside… That must mean…”
He tried to pick up one of the chairs but they were deadbolted into the floor. The table was, too, as well as the shelves. We all slowly realized that every single piece of furniture in the conference room was immovable.
Thirty more minutes passed as we all tried to think of different methods to break the glass.
“I don’t know....” Shannon said softly as she studied the windows. She regarded Harry worriedly. “It looks pretty real. I could almost feel the wind from outside... hear the noise from the streets...”
“They can make anything look real.” Harry said confidently. I noticed he was squaring his shoulders. “I’m telling you, the layout of the room doesn’t make sense. There has to be another room beyond that glass.”
“There has to be something we can use to smash it.” Erick grumbled, frustrated.
“We have ten minutes, guys.” I warned, checking my watch.
“Oh, fuck it.”
Before we all knew what was happening Harry was already running across the room and going full speed into the glass that had a clear view of the San Francisco streets twenty stories below.
I felt a hand grip my arm. I was surprised to realize it was Erick’s.
“Wait! No, Harry, what if--” Shannon yelled, the words evaporating from her lips as Harry hit the glass.
The glass broke, too easily, and we all watched in silent shock as Harry fell through.