Contest #72 shortlist ⭐️

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Science Fiction People of Color Speculative

Row and rows of cylindrical tanks filled with neon green liquid light the dim pod chamber. Pink skinned, brown skinned; bald, hairy; long limbed, short torso-ed; a variety of human bodies float in those murky waters, their breathing done through tubes. Wires monitor their brain activities. Above the tanks the computers beep happily with every new data gathered. Some are good-looking. Bodies shaped like a renaissance sculptor’s model—not too buff like a whey head, not too skinny like a neurotic on a diet of ramen noodles—a category I sadly fall into. 


My gaze lingers on one of them. The neon green shines on his raven hair, highlights his brown skin and altogether screams ethereal. My gaze lowers in search of a name tag or a number ID, but Supervisor Ula’s bass voice drags my attention away. 


“Zarai.”


“Yes, ma’am.” I turn to where she stands and breathe a sigh of relief when I find her back to me. Would not want her thinking I’m getting distracted by one of the studies.


“What do you think?” She motions at the tanks.


“About the volunteers?” 


“Yes.”


My gaze wanders back to the nearest one, straying upward till I’m faced with thick brows knit and corners of the mouth down-turned and twitching as if in a painful recollection. Long tendrils of hair float, defying gravity. I saw an angel like this once. In a painting tucked safely in a museum. “Can’t think of anything negative, ma’am.”


“You’re a data analyzer.” She looks over her shoulder, her glasses gleaming, hiding her expression. “You harvest these people’s thoughts.”


I shrug. “I do what the Company asks me to, ma’am. And they volunteered. They’re getting paid.”


“Don’t you think they should at least be clothed?”


“What for? They aren’t going to need them all wired up and stuck in their heads.”


“That’s true.” She’s back to gazing at the tank before her of a wrinkled woman, scrawny arms crossed before her chest in an almost Mummy-esque way. “But they seem so sad.”


I would have begged to differ, but the conversation ended there, because my lunch break was over. Supervisor Ula didn’t get me an extension, even though she ate up all my time. Typical Supers, they take all the Junior’s time without thinking. Funny, considering she’s one of the Supers for the Humane Ethics Department. 


At my desk, I’m back reading files on people’s backgrounds, their immediate past, and the thoughts farmed from them below in the pods. Their pictures, names, ages, and any other traceable identifier is redacted. What I’ve been given is essentially a nonfiction story, and my job asks me to make predictions based on my analysis of simulations carried out on the studies. The way I go about it is to find the fundamental driver of the person: is it money, relationships, revenge, etc? Then I go about finding out the individual’s primary and immediate secondary identities. The two steps result in a basic, yet useful, understanding of a person’s motivation and life focus. 


It’s nothing special, considering annually I’m asked to compare my results with the Computer. The machine is 99.9999% accurate in its estimations and surmises. I average close to 70% after having worked here for over a decade since dropping out of high school. It irks me a bit, being compared to a thing, but I’m ever thankful to the Company that considers hiring drop-outs and giving them a well-paying job. 


For the rest of the day, I organize randomized data to the best of my human knowledge. I realized after the second year that I was also being studied. The A.I. uses me as a guiding reference, watching how I come to my conclusions, judging my biases and listing them as variables to consider when predicting human behavior. But again, the pay is good, and I can’t complain. When I get home, I’m going to dive straight into the urban-folklore based graphic novel with a ramen and a store-bought eclair by my side. The life my low-maintenance ass aspired to in my teen years. 


The last file for the day pops up on the screen, but the software must have glitched and failed to redact correctly, because the angel from the pod chamber is staring at me. But this time with a somewhat arrogant expression, black eyes blazing at the camera, lips pressed thin as if daring the onlooker. His name is K@3$#@. I frown. The K is probably correct, but the latter letters were lost in the malfunction. I should report this, but instead I scroll to see his background history while I still have a chance to put a face to all this information I’m forced to process every day. But the personal data is blacked out. The damn software did the opposite of its job. I sigh and collapse back into the chair, gaze glued on that face. 


K, his name is K.


At the exit, the scanner takes a reading of my face. The Computer gained the ability to tell the emotions a person expresses over a decade ago. Now, it asks me if I’m feeling well. There truly is something weird about a machine asking you if your home life is going well, and truly something weird about me responding as if the machine can understand me on a human level. 


“Oh, you know, same old same old. But I’ve got a new book to read. It’s a bestseller.”


“Hope it doesn’t disappoint.” The humanoid face on the screen winks at me. 


I grin back. That’s why I still have my job. Because unlike the others, I go with the flow. I don’t break down and start questioning the Universe and the Powers that Be like a knob. Life is what it is. And pretty is what it is. The handsome face comes back to me. I blink, surprised. Thankfully, I’m already out of the doors, so the Computer doesn’t see me pause.


Scepticism is a healthy trait. It’s a human trait. The Orientation Supervisor explained so. We, the Company, do not fear your skepticism, and you don’t need to fear the Computer’s curiosity. I hope those words still rang true, since my brows rose when a Company Evaluation greeted me on my reading tablet. Then I remembered it was December. I always receive my Evals at the end of the year. Like a cherry on top, the report fuels my ego. 


The usual words are there: dedicated, focused, net-neutral ambition. The last one means I have next to no aspirations in life. I’m not a threat to anyone who doesn’t threaten me. It might sound offensive to some, but it doesn’t bother me. 


What does bother me is his face. K’s picture is burned into the back of my eyelids as if it were a traumatic memory and continues to resurface throughout the week. I want to see him again, even though it’s against Company policy. Even though, if I break policy, I automatically get fired. I guess that’s why they never let us Juniors into the pod chamber and only let those wishy-washy Humane Ethics Supervisors watch over them.


I wonder what his voice sounds like. I shake my head. I like my pay.


K stops bothering me when I’m working. But he comes to me at night when I lay restless, the e-reader tossed aside for the wandering thoughts inside my head. I don’t know a thing about his background, but instead of digging for the file, I want to talk to him. 


The scanner at the exit has read something in my expression, because its questions are getting nosy. Have you found someone you fancy? Met anyone new? 


Yeah, but he’s fictional, I respond every time. But if the scanner can read emotions, then it can read my lies. My suspicions are confirmed when my Supervisor calls me to his office and tells me my processing speed has dropped. I know it hasn’t, since I still read through the same number of files. But I humor him and tell him I’ll try to do better. 


I have decent savings. I’m probably going to be fired anytime soon. With that in mind, I head to Supervisor Ula’s office. I tell her I would like to train under her so I can change departments. Her cheeks turn rosy with inflated pride. She likes recruiting people to be more compassionate. But I tell her before she can run ahead and tell my Supervisor that I would like to see the pod chamber again, so I know I’m making the right decision.


She agrees.


As we walk, I think about how the Computer must have analyzed me. It must have thought me money-driven, since I was satisfied with being single and living on a comfortable paycheck. That was my fundamental marker. And it still is true.


In that dimly lit room, the humming of machines fills the silence. I follow Supervisor Ula. She heads straight for the wrinkled old woman. Something must draw her to that study. Thankfully, with her back turned to me, I head to K’s tank. He’s as majestic as ever, and that’s saying something considering most people never look as good as their first impression. 


“So sad,” Supervisor Ula mumbles.


“Very.” I have no idea what I’m doing, but a red button says WAKE in big bold letters, so I press that. The machines begin to vibrate violently, and the room fills with the red of the alarms going off. The top of the cylinders pops off with a hiss and the liquid drains from the pods. 


Supervisor Ula is screaming and running, but I can’t hear her. My gaze is locked as the water drains from K’s tank and his figure slowly comes to slump at the bottom. His eyes open with a flutter. We only exchange a glance for a moment. With recognition of his surroundings, he yanks the breathing tube away and on shaky legs searches for an escape.


I stare wide-eyed, my brain absorbing everything in. The groans, the sirens, the thundering footsteps of approaching security. I’m probably going to get fired. Right now, I don’t regret a thing.


{Feedback is appreciated. There is always room for growth.}

December 18, 2020 19:26

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9 comments

Titan Strider
17:05 Jan 07, 2021

I Love this story! Are you going to make a book of it?

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Kara Ohara
20:28 Jan 07, 2021

Thank you so much for reading and commenting. :D At the moment, I don't have anything planned for the story.

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Titan Strider
18:24 Jan 13, 2021

You totally should. Also, do you know how to enter stories here? I have several I wrote, but they're too long to enter in any of held contests and such. Each of my stories are 30,000 or 40,000. Thanks!

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Kara Ohara
15:34 Jan 14, 2021

Thanks for the encouragement. Reedsy doesn't accepts stories longer than 3,000. If you're looking to publish for money, you should look up magazines, both traditional and web, and apply if your story fits their criteria. But if you're looking to publish more for interaction like comments and such there are sites like Tapas, Inkitt, and Wattpad. But it's becoming harder to get much interaction if you don't write in popular genres with popular tropes since those sites are saturated with content. And many writers seem to be cross posting betwee...

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Titan Strider
20:17 Jan 22, 2021

Thanks. I have been researching places I can get my stories read. I took you're suggestion and signed up for Inkitt, but quickly had to delete my account because of inappropriate material on the website. I have also looked into wattpad, but it just isn't what I need. Thank you for your help!

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Kara Ohara
17:45 Jan 23, 2021

No problem. It's hard to find the right community for our pieces and form a support network to improve, but all the best to you. :) It's a shame most sites with large user bases are poorly moderated and take time to find writers with similar tastes and objectives.

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Josh C
11:05 Jan 02, 2021

Well done on the shortlist! That's a really interesting story. That prompt looked like a challenging one, but I think you nailed it. A very interesting world that hints at a huge amount of backstory.

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Kara Ohara
18:02 Jan 02, 2021

Thanks, JC. I initially wrote a very rough draft before giving up, then coming back to rewrite it with less than a day left on the counter. Letting the story stew in my head probably helped to give the story that one extra oomph. Glad you found it interesting.

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Josh C
05:14 Jan 03, 2021

Sometimes we just see it click, and we know what we need to do with a story I guess! With only one-week I find it can be tricky to have the time to reflect upon the story before submission.

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