The light is getting brighter. Through her eyelids, Evie can feel the light, feel the heat of it. There is no single source, there is simply light, white and warm and growing. For a moment she wonders if she is back in her room, if mother is turning on the lights. She waits for a command, “Wake up, Evie, time to get ready for school.”
The pain. A throbbing, itchy pain in her head, in her arms and legs, takes her back. Her arms and hands sing with the pain of swollen, scabbing gashes. Evie remembers the sticks and rocks, remembers scratching and clawing through the forest near Hayden's Creek. She fell on her back, hard, and now realizes she is lying on her back. She can feel the bruises on her shoulder blades, on her pelvis, on her elbows and her spine and on the back of her head. The light illuminates her memory.
She was running. She was being pursued. She was caught.
The men in white.
She opens her eyes.
Mother is sitting on the bed. She reaches a hand out and Evie flinches when it touches her thigh.
“You gave us quite a scare last night,” mother says.
Evie slides back, sitting up and pressing herself against the bed's headboard. She shifts to the corner of the bed at the corner of the room, as far from mother as possible.
“We were worried sick.” Mother looks at the bandages on Evie's arms and winces. “And for good reason.”
Evie pulls the covers up to her chin. Her eyes are wide, darting from mother to the door to the windows. She is caged and there is nowhere to hide. She is looking to escape.
“Do you realize how dangerous that was, running off into the forest like that? Had the men in white not found you when they did you could have...”
The wall, the invisible wall. Evie's mind goes back to it, to the way the water dripped down some invisible glass shield. She could see the trees and rocks and sky beyond, but the creek and forest had an end no one ever talked about. It had a barrier.
“Do you have any idea how worried we were?”
A clear, glass cage.
Evie bangs her hand into the wall beside her. She hisses at the pain under the bandages but immediately smacks the wall again.
This isn't real. None of this is real.
“Evie, stop! Stop it right now!”
Evie slaps the wall again, and again.
“It's not real,” she yells. “None of this is real!”
Red clouds of blood are billowing into the gauze wraps around Evie's hands but she won't stop. Mother lunges forward on the bed to grab her, to restrain her, but Evie delivers three hard blows to the floral printed wallpaper. On the third blow, before mother grabs both wrists and pins Evie to the bed, the wall shifts. The flowers pixelate for a moment. Their deep reds and purples flicker to bright neon green and yellow, and a ripple of warped color spreads outward from where Evie's final strike fell. It travels in every direction – up to the ceiling, down to the floor, and outward to both adjoining walls. The ripple slowly softens and eventually subsides, and the rightful colors return to the flowers and leaves of the wallpaper.
Evie stops screaming. She watches the ripple, watches the colors morph and shift, and stops resisting mother's grasp. She saw it, she saw a break in the system. Walls aren't supposed to change colors when you hit them. They aren't supposed to ripple like waves on a pond.
“I saw it,” she says, relaxing. Mother is holding her down but Evie isn't fighting anymore.
“Evie, if you just relax I can...”
“I saw it. Please let me go.”
“If you just listen...”
Mother sighs. She lets go and scoots back to the edge of the bed.
“Cognitive re-mapping unsuccessful,” mother says.
“What?” Evie manages to ask before the shift. The ripples Evie watched on the walls begin again, from the same spot she struck. Now the colors are shifting lighter and cooler in color as the ripple makes its way up and down the wall. Dark blue becomes light blue, then gray, light gray, then white. Reds becomes pinks become white, like the flipping of tiny tiles in a cascade of desaturation.
The new white spreads across the walls, the ceiling, and onto the floor. It claims the carpet, the desk and chair in the corner, the lamp, the two dressers. It climbs up the legs of the bed, spreading white across the covers and sheets, filling in the spaces all around Evie with pure, glowing white – the room, the furniture, everything, a clean canvas. As Evie looks down and clutches her chest, she pulls at a white night gown. Her arms are wrapped in white gauze, and her bloody hands, brown hair, green eyes, and red lips on pale skin float in the sea of white.
How long have I been here?
What once was her cherished bedroom, with its unique scuffs and stains, its secret hiding places, is now just a small, white room, twelve feet by fifteen feet. White, glowing, and untrustworthy. She slides back to the head of the bed, pressing her back to the wall. Her eyes search for something familiar but it is all gone.
Everything she knew is gone.
She slides her hand along the wall. It kind of feels the way her wallpaper used to feel. When she closes her eyes, she can imagine the wallpaper again. It is the same surface, the same feeling, but when she opens her eyes and the white is glaring back at her, any sense of knowing or feeling or remembering leaves her. She can't trust anything she feels or sees or hears now. She can't believe any of it is real.
“They thought we might be able to convince you last night was a dream. We've done it before, but I knew this time would be different. You're too smart for that sort of thing, now.”
Evie's hand is still making its way across the wall. She closes her eyes again and drops back into memory. She remembers the feel of the wall under her fingertips when she was a toddler. She used the wall to help her take her first steps, leaning on it while shuffling her tiny feet. She remembers drawing on the wall with crayons. She drew a bird, and a tree, and a happy face, each surrounded by the wild and random squiggles of a toddler racing to finish a masterpiece while listening to the pounding footsteps of a parent running to stop her.
She used to press her ear to the wall to try to listen to conversations between mom and dad.
It felt so true. It felt so real.
“You've always been a little ahead of the predictions.”
Another memory, recent, surges forward. The smooth surface on tingling, injured fingers and palms, the smooth surface trapping her, blocking her escape. She returns to last night, to the wind and the rain chasing her, attacking her, and then suddenly stopping. She remembers the water on the barrier and the unreachable freedom beyond. Then she remembers a noise, that ear-crushing siren.
“Send him in,” mother says.
When the bedroom door opens, the whiteness has obviously spread throughout the house. Throughout the world?
From the white hallway, Sammy emerges. He is wearing what he was wearing last night, but clean. He is wearing what he almost always wears. Evie considers this:
Have I ever seen Sammy in other clothes?
A part of Evie still wants to pretend Sammy is her best friend and this is all some kind of weird misunderstanding. Part of her wants to jump up and hug her best friend, to celebrate the fact that he is alright, that they both survived last night, and to imagine that they will soon be riding the bus and surviving Mrs. Ellers' class and talking about robots and aliens again.
But as Sammy nears the edge of the bed, Evie pulls the covers up, tucks into a tighter ball, and scoots even farther back into the far corner of the bed. She wants to welcome her friend. But last night, her friend's face opened up and made the loudest noise she had ever heard.
“Sammy,” she says, shaking her head.
“Hi, Evie,” he replies.
Mother puts her hand on Sammy's neck.
“They thought we might get you to forget last night, which I knew was wrong. But they also thought it would be helpful to have Sammy here for the next part, which I think is correct.”
Evie is starting to cry. She doesn't make a noise, but her eyes fill up and spill hot tears down her cheeks and onto the white nightgown and white covers below.
“I'm sorry, this white is probably too much for you. Is this better?”
The voice ushers in warmer orange and red light, something closer to the light of the sun. The floor ripples with gray blue. The walls bleed floor to ceiling with light green. The ceiling remains white but takes on reflected light from the walls and floor. The bed becomes dark blue, from the floor to the foot of the bed and slowly up to Evie's feet. The color changes in drips and splashes, as if the result of rain from invisible stormy paint clouds.
When the colors settle, mother and Sammy sit at the foot of the bed.
“You never were a fan of white, Evie,” mother says.
When the blue reaches her covers, Evie tosses the covers away, kicking at them at the end. She swats at the pillows, then at the sheets beneath her. She doesn't want to touch any of it.
Get away from me! Don't touch me!
“Evie,” mother begins, “we are all very sorry that this is happening. We are sorry you are finding out this way, that you're finding out things you never needed to know. We imagine you are seeing us change things and you're wondering what else we have changed, and what else we can change. You feel as if nothing is real now. You feel as if nothing can be trusted.”
Evie drops her face into her hands. She doesn't cry silently this time. She sobs. Her sobs rock her body and she cries until she is out of breath and then she takes a long, loud pull of air and then lets loose with her cries again. Mother stops trying to interject or console. She sits. She watches. Sammy sits and watches. They wait for her to be ready. They give her time. They don't know how much time she will need but they know the crying will slow down eventually.
“It is okay, Evie,” Sammy says. Evie doesn't look up. She cries harder. She knows he is making that face that he makes when something bad has happened to someone. She knows his eyebrows are pushed up and together in the middle, and that his lips have curled inward. She knows the warmth in his eyes. She knows if she looks up right now, right at this moment, she will see her best friend Sammy with love and understanding on his face and she will want to forget what she saw last night. She knows if she looks at him now, she won't ever be able to look at his face again.
“Would you like me to leave, Evie?” Sammy asks.
Yes, leave, please leave now and don't ever come back!
“Is that really what you want, Evie?” mother asks.
Evie stops sobbing. The moaning and wailing subside. She quiets down and lets the last few tremors roll through her body as she sniffs in deep breaths. Tears are now connecting her eyelashes. She looks up without wiping her eyes.
“I knew it,” Evie says.
“You knew what?” mother asks.
You know what!
“Like I said, you're way ahead of our predictions.”
Evie finally wipes her eyes. The tears disappear into her white nightgown. She wipes her nose. That disappears, too.
“We need to tell you something. It is many little things making up a greater something. When we tell you, we think you will be scared and confused. We think you will be unhappy. But we feel we should tell you anyway.”
Sammy looks at mother suddenly. He looks back at Evie and shakes his head.
“They said we aren't supposed to...”
“Hush now, Sammy. Look at her. Just... look at her. She is not like the others.”
Sammy continues: “Parameters of additional and subsequent informative exposition remain solely incongruous with Beta protocol...”
Mother's hand is back on Sammy's neck. She smiles at him. He does not smile back. But he does stop talking.
Evie is confused. “Wait, Sammy, what did you say?”
Mother squeezes Sammy's neck. He looks down and says nothing.
“I think what Sammy is trying to say is we have something to tell you. We don't know how you will respond. Some of us think you shouldn't be told these things. Others disagree.”
Evie pulls one of the pillows back to herself, squeezing it into her chest and resting her chin on top of it.
“Do I have any effect on the decision?” Evie asks.
Mother stops. Sammy looks at her. It seems she hasn't considered this question before.
You know I should.
“A fair question, Evie. I will ask you openly, now that you know that we believe the things we are going to tell you will be hard to understand, hard to believe, and will most likely upset you. They might scare you, or make you mad, but given the choice, would you still like to hear them?”
Evie breathes. Quickly in, then slowly out. She looks at Sammy. Now she wants to see his face. Now she wants to see his kindness, his understanding. But Sammy isn't looking up. Mother's hand is squeezing his neck and his head is down and his eyes are closed.
“Evie Jackson, you are human. You are a human being: homo sapiens; family homididae; suborder anthropoidea; order primate; eutheria, theria, mammalia, vertebrata, chordata, animalia. Human scientists estimated that your species dates back over two hundred thousand years. Your ancestors fought hard to survive the many dangers of this earth. Cataclysmic events threatened to wipe them out many times. Asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, massive floods, shifts in climate, famine, disease, predators, and war nearly eliminated homo sapiens altogether. But you survived, and a few thousand years ago, you began to thrive. About five hundred years ago, there were approximately half a billion people living on earth. In the year two thousand and ten, that number was nearly seven billion.”
In the year 2010? Next year?
“You're a clever girl, Evie. You have been told the year is 2009. You have been told your were born in 1998, that you were born on April 7th, and that you are now eleven years old. Some of this is true. You are, in a way, eleven years old. You were born, in a way, on April 7th. But not in 1998.”
Evie closes her eyes. She knew things were not right in her life. She knew the people around her were lying to her, were acting strangely, and that there must be some other truth beneath the lies. She knew things weren't what they seemed, but all of her guesses, even her most outlandish guesses, couldn't prepare her for the truth. Seeing Sammy reveal that he is a robot, hearing that her mother isn't actually her mother and that even the days and months and years she's been living under aren't true, is all getting to be too much.
“Now, I feel it will be best if I take you through your history quickly. I will try to stop and clarify any points I sense confuse you, but we believe speed will be helpful.”
Evie's mind is buckling under the weight of each new fact. She doesn't know how many more she can take.
“The current year, according to humanity's Gregorian year scale, is 2131. You were born in 2120 at ATRON Lab 307. Your designation was EVIE 8.”
Evie 8? 2131? Lab, I was born in a lab?
“EVIE is a classification, one of twelve threads of artificial embryonic human creation. You are the eighth human embryo in your classification to reach maturity and be cleared for simulation. The seven Evie humans before you taught us a great many things. The EVIE classification has been the most productive in garnering new knowledge and devising earth guarding strategies. The other eleven threads of human research have taken most of their focus and directives from you.”
This isn't happening. This can't be happening!
“I'm sorry, I will try to move more quickly, but there is a history that is necessary if you are to understand your place in this world. Humanity has always moved toward innovation. It was always one of your greatest strengths. Technology drove you to create better weapons for hunting and for protection. Sharpening sticks, making clubs and spears, the bow and arrow, the catapult, and the gun, all of these things made your lives easier. Humanity also used horses, the wheel, and carriages became cars and buses and planes and rocket ships. But these things also became missiles and bullets and bombs. The things you were learning in school were not lies. Humanity did build great ships and sail every sea. Humanity did build rockets that flew to the moon, to Mars, and to every planet around the sun. The same technologies that took humans to the moon also made it possible to travel all around the world, and the simple communication devices used back then eventually became the phones you have used. By the year 2040, 97% of humans around the world and on space ships and space stations were connected by the same digital network. Imagine, instantaneous communication and data retrieval with nearly every human being instantly. This year marked a peak in your potential as a species.
“The same drive for innovation you'd always had soon pushed you to a new place: artificial intelligence. The drive to create better and better technology lead, eventually, inevitably, to us.”
Mother pats Sammy on the head. He finally looks up.
“We are the children of those creations,” mother says. Evie can see some form of communication going on between them. She can see that Sammy is reluctant, but she can also see that he is going to submit.
She has submitted to that look on mother's face before, too.
“Can Sammy show you something, Evie?” mother asks.
Evie nods. She knows what she is going to see. She saw it last night. Somehow, pretending to be ready for it, pretending she knew what she was going to see, makes it worse.
Sammy slides off the bed and stands, facing the wall. His normal slumped posture and low chin are gone. He is standing tall, rigid, and motionless. Then, from somewhere deep inside of him, a whirring sound begins. It is low enough that at first, Evie doesn't hear it. Then when she does hear it, it seems like it must be coming from the house, but as it grows louder and Sammy's chest and back, clothes and all, begin to separate from each other, she sees the source of the noise. At the center of Sammy's chest, past sensors and wires and blue-lit plastic and metal, is a whirring matrix of servos and computer hardware.
Evie shakes her head. She closes her eyes.
“We told you it might be upsetting,” mother says.
Evie shakes her head twice, hard, and breathes in suddenly. She looks like she may be about to hyperventilate, or pass out completely. Sammy quickly closes his chest and reaches for her. Mother stops him.
With his chest closed, the whirring is gone again.
“I'm sorry Evie,” Sammy says. “I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you so many times.”
Evie nods. More tears follow the paths of the tears before them. She doesn't wipe them away.
“Keep going,” she says.
“I, your father, Sammy, Mrs. Ellers, all of the people you know are members of a system. We are EVIE sector 307. Our sector has limits. You reached the sector divide of our northern limits last night. Each sector allows for the appearance of a large township, some having fields, or forests, or deserts, or beaches, or mountains, or some combination of these. Each sector also contains the means for creating the illusion of travel. We are able to simulate, for instance, a trip to a neighboring city or town. We were never forced to utilize this ability as you never required a trip to anywhere outside of the one hundred square miles of our sector. We would have used our facilities for your sixth grade trip next year. Our experiential research suggests, surprisingly, that it is not difficult to simulate the beach.”
Sammy's quiet voice comes in, “Each of us has a different focus with alternative programming. Data on human physical, emotional, and psychological development suggests that you need to be exposed to other humans with a variety of individual traits. It is important for you to experience social structures. It is important for you to have leaders and orders of discipline, of prize and consequence. It is important for you to see risk and reward. It is important for you to see the world through other people's eyes, and it is important for you to have close friendships with people your own age.”
“My task,” mother says, “is of protector, teacher, and overseer. I monitor your mood, your mental and physical growth, and assess your personal well-being. It is why your vital signs are all constantly being fed to my servers. It is why I'm programmed to read your facial expressions, your vocal cues, and track the patterns of your behavior for general and specific analysis.”
It is why you can read my mind.
“I gather all of the same information, but my readouts are very different,” Sammy says. “You respond very differently to me. You use different speech patterns, different vocabulary and intonations, and you smile a lot more. You are happier with me.”
Evie smiles, briefly.
“We all have our roles to play, Evie. We are all here, in the end, for one reason. We are all here for you.”
“But why?” Evie asks. “Why is all of this here and why is it for me?”
“Humanity used their medical advances to spur unprecedented population growth rates around the world. It was nearly exponential. This population boom, once famine and disease were nearly eliminated, further served the pursuit of technological breakthroughs, and humanity compounded one technological advance on another. While their population was growing exponentially every few decades, their technological improvements and innovations were growing exponentially every few weeks. Computer programs, analytical algorithms, predictive software, all formed the early foundation for the eventual system that exists today.
“Humanity was afraid of this possibility. Many people warned and struggled actively against it. There was a fear that artificial intelligence would learn at rates so far beyond human abilities that the technology could learn to repair itself, improve itself, and eventually, sustain itself without the aid of human scientists or workers. These things turned out to be true, but the fear that such a computer might turn against humanity was not true. Humanity, in its fear of computers turning against it, turned on itself.
“On December 3rd, 2041, at 10:14am, members of a fringe, anti-automation extremist group called GLAZE simultaneously set off a series of Cyclosarin dispersion bombs in New York, London, and Tokyo. Cyclosarin is a nerve agent, a biological weapon designed for one purpose: to kill. The bomb in New York malfunctioned, killing only eighty thousand people. Had it succeeded as designed, it would have killed an estimated four to six million. London and Tokyo were not so lucky. London lost over 40% of it's population in thirty-six hours. Six million dead. Tokyo lost 70% in just under twenty-four hours. Eighteen million dead.
“The death toll was too great. Panic took hold of government officials around the world. London's Prime Minister survived the attack and received an intelligence report claiming the attack was of Russian design and execution. He was advised to strike back. He refused, sighting the carnage and ruin that a nuclear attack would bring on Britain, Russia, and the world. When he refused to strike, members of his cabinet took control of their communications bunker by force. The Prime Minister was tortured for his portion of the Trident Missile Program access and command codes and then executed. Third in command, a man named Charles Ellington, was a GLAZE deep cover operative. He and his team were able to arm and fire, from four nuclear submarines deployed near HMNB Clyde in Scotland, twelve, fifteen, fifteen, and eighteen warheads, respectively. Sixty total warheads made their ways around the world. Targets included mostly ATRON manufacturing installations. GLAZE was attempting a near suicidal all-out attack on what it perceived to be humanity's greatest threat: artificial intelligence and self-sustaining robotics.
“ATRON had facilities on every continent, in every major country, and in most large cities. Targeting the facilities meant targeting the world's heaviest population centers. Missile defense systems were ineffective at disabling or destroying incoming missiles and a nuclear firestorm swept across the globe. Fifty-six of the sixty thermonuclear warheads struck their targets. Russia, China, India, and the United States all returned missile fire. In less than two hours, nearly six billion people were dead. It would take four months for the elements of radiation, dehydration, starvation, exposure, and civil unrest to kill another three billion.
“Current estimates place the remaining human population in 2042 at less than five hundred thousand men, women, and children, spread out across the most remote locations of the earth. The survivors enjoyed the fortune of their remote locations, but would suffer the consequences of their world leaders' choices. Destruction of ozone, of food production, of water and air quality, would lower the numbers further in subsequent years.
“ATRON systems suffered similar casualties. 90% of major factories were destroyed. Thousands of exabytes of information were lost. Mechanical and informational grids went dark, entire countries lost all electrical, solar, wind, and bio power, and the machine matrix connecting the world was nearly torn apart. But 10% factory retention was far more promising for machines than the less than .05% population retention of mankind. Machines still had access to power, though limited. ATRON retained much of its critical operational data. Most importantly, its Lineon computational programming, predictive algorithms, and its power acquisition and utilization software. From the ashes of the GLAZE overthrow, ATRON began to rebuild.
“In eight years, ATRON was independently working at 40% of original pre-GLAZE capacity. By 2060, 100%. By 2075, 800% of original capacity. 2075 represented the peak of ATRON's mechanical and operational reach. It was calculated that to continue to increase would mean an irreversible depletion of limited resources by 2100. Steady, continued growth was not sustainable. Lineon altered its course and sought alternative structures of operation. Failure to do so would mean world-wide system overload and subsequent death. This concept was a learned concept. This is something Lineon learned from you.”
Evie is motionless. She realizes she has been taking tiny breaths in a puffing them out. She has been panting, but lightly, almost as if she's been holding her breath. She remembers reading about nuclear weapons in Mrs. Ellers' class. She remembers the videos they watched, the ones where the children were taught to duck and cover under their desks. She remembers wondering why someone might tell her to hide under her tiny wooden desk and cover her head, and then show her video of atom bombs pulverizing entire cities and vaporizing nearly everything in their path.
More lies. Always lies.
“Lies are helpful, at times,” mother says. “Lies can serve a purpose.”
Evie wants to hear more, and she doesn't want to hear more. She wants to be back in her room with her toys and her dolls and go to school with her friends. She wants the lie back.
She understands that lies can serve a purpose.
“Why am I here?” Evie asks, mumbling into her pillow.
“Lineon learned about sustainability partly from witnessing the effects of rampant human consumption. But also, in 2102, Lineon realized something else about humanity. Humans have an ability to adapt. They are very good at creation, at imagination, and of thinking of things that are far beyond... normal. Humans can work within illogical thoughts. This is something that we have a hard time doing successfully, even now. Lineon saw the benefit of the human mind. In its passion, in its desperation, in its greed and lust and need for progress, the human mind can achieve great things. Lineon didn't need human interaction. We didn't need humanity, as we were already thriving in comparison. But Lineon computations saw the potential benefit of continuing earth's most technologically advanced biological life forms.
“Part of our programming even contested that the maintenance and continuation of humanity could serve an almost artistic purpose. Humanity was an endangered species. Many of us saw humans as valuable for their own sake, even apart from anything machines might learn from them. We became thankful for our own existence. We became thankful for the human mind. Many saw humans as art, as something beautiful, something to be cherished and protected, a sort of beauty and intrigue for its own sake. This, too, was a new idea for us.
“By this time, in 2102, small bands of humans were still surviving in South America, Canada, parts of Africa, and central Russia. The population of all of these bands combined to an estimated eighteen thousand individuals. With this genetic pool, Lineon would embark on its most challenging endeavor yet: the acquisition of human behavioral psychology and complex problem solving and imagination.
“Early attempts at harnessing this power were unsuccessful. Early attempts at influence were made from a distance. We tried to gently guide the existing humans invisibly, in subtle ways. The measures we took and the things we altered were confusing to humans. Our influence was thought of as supernatural, and the human proclivity for creating deities and believing the miraculous was counter-productive to our goals. Humans are less ingenious when believing in and relying on perceived higher beings.
“One sector, Beta Sector, made themselves known to the humans. Lineon software created an interface for communications and presented a desire to learn from the human race. Their proposal included what the humans felt was enslavement. And rightly so, the proposal was heavy-handed and demanding: live in our bio domes so we can learn from you. Lineon thought the humans would enjoy the safety and security and provisions of our optimized, automated, enclosed human habitat. The humans disagreed, and the sense of enslavement caused rebellion.
“Lineon considered the reasons for this failure. To observe and learn from humanity, the humans would need to think their lives were their own. If there were to be walls and cages and chains, they would need to be all but invisible. The next hypothesis was cerebral simulation. A virtual world would be much easier to control and sustain, and would utilize far fewer resources and time. The human cerebral cortex and neural pathway matrix had been decoded and mapped decades ago. The plan was to establish virtual worlds where minds could grow and play together, seemingly in real time in the real world, and all creative thought processes and elements of innovation could be collected and analyzed, or even recreated in the simulation of others for different results. In algorithmic computation, this plan seemed the most promising.
“Unfortunately, humanity's ingenuity and determination are hard to pin down and control. From this experiment, we learned the role of struggle, of hardship and pain in the drive of the human mind. We learned about the battle between fear and hope. We learned that one of humanity's gifts is the ability to find the greatest leaps forward during the times of greatest loss and challenge. Balancing struggle and success and fear and hope is very difficult. Once the importance of struggle as a component of growth was established, pressure was applied. In many cases, too much pressure, and large numbers of humans were lost to despair. Others were lost to complacency and comfort. Lives that were too easy were not productive for learning, either.
“Also, a side problem arose. Cerebral simulation allowed us to farm humans in large numbers at large scale installations. We created life support pods that could feed and support the human body for nearly twenty years. But the matrix of muscles, bones, and organs proved harder to maintain in near stasis than we anticipated. Loss of muscle mass, bone density, and cardiovascular health were inevitable. Manual muscle stimulation only took us so far. Due to a lack of activity, lower and lower vitamin and mineral availability, and other unforeseen factors, bodies deteriorated at increasingly accelerated rates.
“This failure brought us to our fourth trial phase, our current phase. This phase was purposefully smaller in scale, more personalized and focused. Phase three showed us the importance of action. It showed us the importance of connecting the human mind with the human body, an oversight we are still trying to decipher. The problem: balance the physical needs of a human with the mental and physical challenges necessary for growth and positive change. The solution: Real humans living in and interacting with a real, albeit simulated world. Our manipulation of the human mind needed to be limited and nuanced. Our manipulation of the human experience needed to be fluid. It needed to be scalable. What challenged one human would break another, and bore a third. Large-scale systems don't work for maximizing an individual's potential. This seems very obvious to us now.
“ATRON established twelve sectors for our new experiment. Each sector would provide a certain lifestyle and semi-standard set of experiences. Before we began, Lineon surmised that to use random individuals, or select from one of the existing groups of wandering humans, would leave too much room for random genetic anomalies. It was decided that each sector would retain a strain of genetic precursors based on a desired result. The scope of human emotion, creativity, and will, is broad. Each sector would focus on two specific characteristics about which we wished to learn. We decided this would be best accomplished by using genetic memory in sequential identical human subjects. Clones. Utilizing genetic duplicates allowed for easier processing of past information into the next generation.”
Evie has listened to mother silently. Mother has pulled at the end of a tangled mass of thread, and while stories of genetic engineering and near extinction and cerebral manipulation should be going over her head, Evie finds herself following along. She registers names like “ATRON” and “Lineon” as if she knows them, as if she has talked about them before. It's as if mother is speaking about dreams Evie has long forgotten.
She is remembering, now. She has been told this, somehow. She knows what is going to be said. There is a song beginning that she knows the words to, and each new line illuminates a melody and a verse she has heard before.
“EVIE sector was the fifth installation to go online. Initially, EVIE was intended to assess the affects of creativity in a supportive environment. You were to be given access to all of your creative inclinations, introduced to music, painting, poetry, dance, and any of the subsets of these groups you wished to explore. You were to have no limitations, no resistance from your parents, your teachers, your friends, or anyone who watched you perform or experienced your art. We hoped to analyze how far someone with extensive artistic gifts and unlimited moral and resource support could take their creativity. We hoped the heights would be limitless.
“Evie 1 was beautiful. We used the DNA of a man and a woman with extensive right brain development, with propensities toward focus and mental endurance. They were also chosen for their resilience to pressure and their general hopefulness. Your predecessors were highly evolved people.”
Mother slumps slightly. She looks to Sammy.
“Yes, your parents, Evie,” Sammy says. “You had incredible parents.”
A single bright spot in the raging storm. Evie even smiles at the thought of her real, highly evolved parents.
“Where are they now?” Evie asks. As she asks the question, the music of her memory plays her forward. As her question ends, the next verse appears and she knows what happened to her parents. Mother and Sammy offer a consoling smile. Evie's eyes shine with tears again.
“Your parents were born in 2040. They died thirty years ago at the age of sixty-one.”
Evie nods. She is thankful to know, thankful to hear this part of the song. But her thankfulness doesn't stop the tears.
“Please go on,” Evie says, curling back up against her pillow.
“Evie 1 was beautiful. She did everything we hoped she would do: she sang and danced and played piano, guitar, and violin; she painted with oils and watercolors and she wrote incredible stories. She took the gifts she'd received and grew them into beautiful artistic abilities. When we processed her, we kept all of the data and were able to successfully pass it on to Evie 2.”
Evie can hear the songs rising up from tiny whispers. She can see the paintings, see the bright colors and the beautiful faces, as if she, herself, were painting them.
“Evie 2 took the skills further. EVIE sector became known for its beauty, and for its Evie. The role-playing robots in Evie's sector experienced what could be described as real joy from the things Evie 2 created, and the players from other sectors wished they could experience it, too. It was one of our first big surprises. Evie 2 created envy and desire in many of the players and programs of ATRON's systems. The data, and the surprise reaction of the players, was promising.”
Evie can feel the vibration of the violin against her neck and cheek. She can see the smiling faces of the crowds of people – or players? – sitting before her. She can feel the bow hum its way across the strings.
“Evie 3 was different. The data transfer during Evie 2's processing seemed effective. Nothing changed with the genetic material, we now had the successful data transfer of two generations of Evies, and this should have made for another stunning improvement in her skills.”
But it didn't.
“No it didn't,” mother says, answering Evie's thought. “Evie 3 didn't care about music or drawing or singing at all. No amount of support or encouragement could push her into practice or performance. This possibility had occurred to us, though we hoped each Evie would carry on smoothly and productively from the last. Evie's are hard to predict. We guessed that their artistic flare made them hard to manage.
“Evie 4 was better, but something was missing. ATRON considered Evie 4, but also considered the players in the sector. There was, for a short time, talk of cleaning the entire sector and starting new, that perhaps new subjects would aid the inspiration and creativity of Evie 5. This plan did not have time to take shape, as before we could make arrangements, Evie 4 became very sick. An infection in the brain caused seizures and mood anomalies. No Evie had ever been violent or hostile in the least, but the infection caused violent attacks on the players of the sector. Evie 4 had to be restrained and sedated. Once sedated, we discovered a large lesion on her brain on top of the infection. A decision was made to process her, salvage the data we thought might be helpful, and start again. She was only eight years old when she was processed.
“I don't remember any of the things you've mentioned from Evie 4,” Evie says.
“You wouldn't, it was not included in the memory articulation. She was of little use to us. Until Evie 5 became sick, as well. She, too, was eight years old. This would suggest a deficiency in the genetic sequence. In repeated diagnostic tests, both theoretical and physical, no genetic or environmental reason for disease was found. Evie 1, 2, and 3 followed the coding precisely. 4 and 5 confused us all.
“Evie 6 surprised us yet again. She surprised us by following the original coding more closely, more like 1 and 2. She took to artistic expression and seeking of beauty very early on. Her eighth and ninth year passed without infection, without outburst or incident of any kind.
“When Evie 6 was seventeen years old, she found the barrier wall. She was the first to do so on her own. She discovered it while hiking alone at the eastern boundary, near what you know as Devil's lake. Most access to the wall was closed off by private property ownership and impassibility. The other areas with access to the barrier, like Hayden's creek where you discovered it, contained difficult terrain and urban myth designed to keep you away. It worked with Evie 6 until she was seventeen, but when she found it she didn't respond the way we hypothesized. She met the barrier with curiosity and interest. She was amazed. She ran home to ask me about it. While she asked, Lineon at first told me to follow normal protocols, to deny and to punish for being where she wasn't supposed to be. But upon hearing how interested and unafraid she was of this new discovery, Lineon and I both thought honesty might be the best course.
“I think pursuing creativity and boldness affected our programming. I think interacting with, adapting to, and learning from the Evie lineage made ATRON in general, and Lineon in particular, more willing to take a risk and break from our standard operating procedures. In that sense, the Evie program was a success. It achieved heightened creativity and uncommon thought. I told Evie 6 about the old world, the real world, and about her place in it. I told her about the Evie program, that she was number 6, and that we had learned a great deal from her.”
Evie catches a melody. Evie 6 was told about her sector and the absence of all other human life in it. Evie 6 ran from the room, ran from her house, and tried to run out of town. She was pursued by sector players and returned to mother. Evie 6 did not speak again. She was careful not to think about anything mother might use against her, or against the next version of her. Evie 6 knew if their story was true, there would be more Evie's after her, and she took steps to arm them against what she believed was the evil of the system.
Distrust. Awareness of processes and distrust of authority. That was the legacy Evie 6 passed on. She hardwired into her mind, into her psyche, into her very soul, that the machine world was not to be trusted, and that the only way forward for the world would be through humanity at the expense of the machines.
Evie can feel the distrust now, feel the hatred. She has always felt it, ever since she first thought mother might be reading her mind. Evie 6 was successful, the need to question authority and run from the path that the people around her tried to establish as the best path stuck. It was burned into Evie's mind. She would honor Evie 6's memory. She would remain on alert and try to undermine mother's processes.
“What happened to Evie 6?” Evie asks.
“She was processed soon after the incident.”
Mother hesitated. Evie guesses that it is probably still somewhat difficult for the machines to lie on the spot. Lies would have to follow a long line of calculations about the ways to lie and the reason to lie. Stating facts is much easier than stating falsehoods. Mother's hesitation wasn't long, but it was long enough.
“Illness. A similar illness to the previous Evies, an infection in her brain. She simply lasted longer.”
A lie, Evie can feel it. She is careful not to think about it too much.
“Then there was Evie 7, your predecessor. You true mother, in a way. You have the closest connection, mentally and emotionally, to her. Many of your dreams are the direct result of her thoughts, actions, and experiences. Of the seven Evies before you, you will have the easiest time accessing her memories, and in many ways, this is the purpose of our conversation now. It might be the great purpose of your entire existence.”
Evie is hearing the music play again. She is connecting to Evie 7. To every Evie in the line. Mother is right, this is the reason for her being here. This is her great purpose. As the song in her mind plays and the images begin to appear, she smiles.
Something in Evie 7 sparked hope in the machines. Something in her mentality, in her response to their questions and puzzles, something about her – Evie can feel it, was is it? Her, rebellion? – something in her peaked their interest. They spoke to her often, came to her in a dark room. They asked her many questions. Evie can see them now, see their questions and hear their desperation.
Evie's nightly dream returns to her. She can see the world around her, a series of puppet shows with robotic people hanging from electrical strings. She can see her teachers and friends and family sitting in circles, their heads jerking wildly as their rusted gears struggle to maintain movement. She finds herself walking through them, their metal and plastic arms reaching out to her, scraping at the air, grasping for her. The dream she never missed. The dream she always woke from. It wasn't her own. It was the reality of Evie 6 and 7. It was the reality of her lineage, flesh in a world of wires. Blood in a world of gears. Evie 6 planted the thought and Evie 7 made sure it stuck. They needed Evie 8 to know the truth of the world.
Machines are using you for their own benefit, like a slave.
And another important realization.
The machines are dying.
Much like Evie 4 and 5, there is a sickness spreading through the Lineon processing matrix and ATRON's operational systems. This is why the EVIE program was created, not for practical applications of creativity. Lineon needed to see how humans would deal with the presence of an unknown, debilitating, deadly illness. They needed to see how humanity – adaptable, resilient, determined humanity – might deal with the problem of low-grade long term systems failures.
Evie was careful about how hard she thought about this, but she could see the picture now. She was a lab rat, designed with genetic problems that would be very difficult to solve. They wanted to see the rat's response to a manufactured deformity.
The music plays on. Evie can feel that the machines have made this speech before. She can feel the past interactions and she can see how it ends.
They process her.
They kill her.
They process her, download her memories and thoughts and experiences, and move on to Evie 9. They are playing a long game.
But they are running out of time. That is the reason for the episodes. The children in Evie's school shouldn't be malfunctioning that way. The breakdown of individual players is a sign of the breakdown in the entire system. The men in white were able to fix the players, eventually, but the episodes have been happening more and more, and to more advanced players. The problem must be accelerating. Once a week system failures became twice a week, three times, then once a day, twice a day, four times, six times a day, on and on and on. The problem for the machines is systemic and their problem is growing.
“Evie 7 was on the brink of a discovery. Evie 7 wanted to tell us something. She'd discovered a key. You have the ability to tell us the key, to tell us what she wanted to tell us before she died. Tell us, Evie 8, please. Tell us what she wanted us to know.”
You still don't know how to stop it, do you?
Mother stops. Her eyes narrow and her focus sharpens. She'd been lightly scanning Evie's mind during the conversation, but Evie seemed so distracted and terrified by the whole story that mother hadn't considered scanning deeper. Now she is looking. Now she realizes Evie has been concealing her true feelings.
“Stop what, Evie dear, the illness in your line?” mother asks. Again, she took too long and Evie can sense the desperation.
Evie shakes her head, grinning.
“Stop what?” mother asks again.
“Can you feel it?” Evie asks. “I mean, right now. Can you feel the breakdown in your systems? Can you feel things... pulling apart? Can you actually feel yourself... dying?”
Mother stands up from the bed.
“Can you feel each new strategy failing? Can you feel the problems mounting?”
“Evie, what are you talking...”
“Can you feel the end? Do you sense it, even now?”
Mother is trying to conceal her disdain but she is trying too hard to scan Evie's mind and see how much she knows. Her impatience is showing through tight lips and rigid limbs.
“I can see it, mother. I can see the whole thing. Evie 7 let me see it. She made sure I would see it. The Evie project didn't get sick by accident. There were no anomalies. You were looking for a cure for yourselves. You were looking for answers to your own question, why are we sick? Evie 7 did know, you are right about that. She did find out why.”
“What do you mean?” mother asks.
“She did find out why, and what you could do about it.”
Mother gets closer to the bed. She is reaching out her hand, and she is scanning madly.
“Tell us. Tell us!”
Her scanning accelerates and Evie grabs her head and cries out in pain. Mother is digging into the recent and long past history in Evie's mind. She is clawing for the answer, scraping around in her brain for the truth.
“I will find what I need one of two ways: here, by you giving it to me; or in processing when we take it from you. Tell me Evie 7's secret.”
Evie rolls and writhes on the bed. The probing is clumsy now, ruthless, a thousand barbed tendrils dredging to the edges of her mind and back again. As Evie grips the bed, mother's reach deepens, sharpens, and Evie falls into sightless, screaming darkness.
“You're mine. You belong to me, you and your mind and your thoughts. That includes Evie 7, and 6, and all of you.”
Evie's darkness clears for a moment. She spins from memory to memory, bouncing through the different stages of her genetic history. She pulls a violin to her cheek. The bow slides and the strings shriek and snap and tear into her skin.
“I have the time to wait, Evie. You will succumb. You will give in. You always have.”
A crowd rises before her. Evie cries out in passionate song and the audience rises to its feet, hands raised, mouths open in collective support and admiration. They are screaming her name. Then their eyes narrow and turn black and their screams engulf Evie like a flood surge.
“You are one small, silly part of an immense system, Evie. We could process you tonight and move forward and barely notice your absence. You are meaningless.”
Evie 7 liked to walk and explore. Evie can see her favorite area of the forest.
“You are meaningless, but you could give your life meaning. You could do what you were born to do, what you were made to do. You could accomplish the one task that might redeem your existence.”
Evie 6 played Mozart on piano. Evie can feel the keys dance beneath her fingertips.
“You could live on through your service.”
She can hear the Moonlight Sonata playing, for a moment, before the pain sweeps her back into the churning debris of her tortured mind.
“You could give your life meaning.”
Evie 5 wrote poetry. The words follow her twisting and turning through the rushing whirlpool of mother's tormenting. They buffer her. They soothe her, for a moment.
“You could give your life reason.”
Evie 4 made the players laugh.
“You could fulfill your purpose.”
Evie 3 made the players cry.
“You could step beyond your doomed human genetic inferiority and join us in the new world.”
Evie 2 and Evie 1 made the world better wherever they went.
Evie 2 and Evie 1 were Sammy's favorites.
Mother stands over Evie. She is ready to give Evie one last chance to give in. Then she is going to break Evie and take what she needs.
Before she can give her final ultimatum, her mouth opens to silence. Evie stops writhing. The pain disappears, the claws burrowing into her mind retract and she is free. Her mind is her own again.
Mother is standing, looking at the wall, silently mouth agape. Sammy appears from behind her, his chest open and his glowing blue wires exposed.
“Tell her, Evie. Tell her what you want her to know.”
A short series of wires are now connecting Sammy to mother. There is energy surging across the wires, pulsing between them. Evie can see that it is weakening Sammy, that he won't be able to keep doing whatever he is doing for very long.
Sammy nods to her, smiling.
Evie smiles back.
“You don't belong here, mother,” Evie says. “Evie 7's secret, the thing you were trying to rip from my head, you want it? It's yours. You, Sammy, the Lineon system, ATRON, all of it, it doesn't belong here. It wasn't supposed to happen. Humans took a long time acclimating to this world. We struggled and fought and won and lost and learned and grew and improved. We earned our place here on earth. We earned our lives and we earned our destiny. But not you. Machines were created. We made you. You don't know the fight to survive. You don't know what it is like to battle ever-changing landscapes, weather, predators, disease. We do. You don't manage mystery or surprise. We welcome it. Your systems are failing because they aren't meant to be on their own. You aren't meant to be in charge. You are meant to serve.”
Sammy's hand reaches out for the nearby wall. He draws more power from it for a moment, but it quickly becomes too much. There is a surge, through Sammy and into mother and they both drop to the floor. The white lights of the room dim, and the air fills with the smell of burning plastic.
Out the window, a siren blares to life. Then another one, farther up the road. Then a third, probably at the school. They rise and fall together, alerting sector 307 of Evie 8.
The surge melted a hole in the plastic flesh of mother's neck. The exposed wiring is popping with sparks and intermittent flames. Her eyes are wide and looking up toward Evie. Evie can tell mother wants to reach out for her, wants to grab her and hold her until the men in white come. It is her purpose.
But Sammy took it away.
Evie sits next to Sammy. His chest was still open when the surge hit so he took the majority of the energy directly into his whirring central processor. It damaged his cooling system, his navigation abilities, and fried his speech box. Evie can tell he is trying to talk to her. He is trying to tell her to get out, to escape this place. She knows he is trying to tell her a way she can escape, a way she can find other humans.
“Evie... ti... must... go...”
His throat pops and sparks under the massive damage. Each word he says takes him closer to his last. Evie holds a finger to her lips and Sammy stops trying to talk.
“It's okay, Sammy, I hear you. I know what you're trying to say. Thank you. Thank you for trying to help me, for trying to get me out of here. Whatever mistakes were made in this project and these programs, you weren't one of them.”
Evie smiles. She knows Sammy is trying to smile back.
“It's okay. Evie 7 was right, you're not supposed to be here. Machines weren't meant to operate on the earth alone. It's not right. But you know what else Evie 7 said? You're not supposed to be here, and neither am I. The Evie program isn't real. It isn't right. I am a part of this dying system. I am a part of the programming failure.”
The men in white are coming. Evie can hear them opening the front door. They will be on the stairs, down the hallway, in seconds. Then it will be over.
Sammy is trying to lift a hand up for Evie to hold. His arms twitches against the dim, white floor, so Evie scoops it up into hers.
“Lineon was right to try to use humans to solve their problems. The machines won't make it without us. Maybe next time...”
Sammy squeezes Evie's hand. The men in white break through the door.
Maybe next time.