Contest #150 winner 🏆

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Science Fiction Speculative Horror

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

Zelina walked in the middle of the train track. She and her sister used to lay in bed listening for the comforting whistle of the train that passed at three o’clock every morning. Their father was a conductor of a shipping train that ran overnight runs. They would listen for the whistle and wonder if it was Dad’s train.

Now her sister was buried at the cemetery up the hill from these tracks.

What now? Would she ever be happy again? Would this sadness sit on her soul ever leave? What was she supposed to do? How would she manage without one of the most important people in her life? She lost half of herself. The black hole of loss was sucking the meaning of her life.

She wiped the tears from her face as she looked up the hill toward the cemetery. “What should I do, Zariah?”

Follow the light.

She heard the sound of the old comforting whistle. It was louder here than it was from her parents’ home two miles away. The vibration of the train rumbled through her core. The brakes screeched, metal sparks flying across the tracks as the light embraced her.

“Why did my AI call me at four o’clock in the morning?” Alysia asked sharply as she walked into the drab grey computer lab.

“One of the test subjects got hit by a train an hour ago,” Linden said, his eyes locked on the code running across his computer screen. “She was standing on the tracks. The conductor couldn’t stop in time.”

“That’s odd,” Alysia said, rolling a chair next to his. “Did her AI termination alert wake you up?”

“No, that’s the strange part,” Linden said. “My AI sent me a media alert when the news post came across the wires for the morning broadcasts. I have an algorithm to monitor the names of the people in the test group for online mentions outside of normal parameters.”

“Getting hit by a train is abnormal,” Alysia said. “You said the subject’s AI didn’t give you a termination notification?”

Linden shook his head. “That’s why I’m here. The subject’s AI is still transmitting,” He hit a key on his computer to project his screen over the desk. “Look at that programming code. Does it make sense to you?”

Alysia stared at the nonsensical text scrolling across the projected frame. “I’m a scientist, not a network engineer. All I see that makes any sense is ‘follow the light’ on every other line.”

“That’s not my algorithm for the AI functions,” Linden said. “My team didn’t program anything like that in it. What’s more, is that the phrase repeats in multiple languages. ‘Sigue la luz’ in Spanish, and ‘sequitur lumen’ in Latin. The English is repeating, with a new translation added in between each appearance.”

“The text in between those ‘follow the light’ lines aren’t part of the algorithm?”

“None of this is my algorithm,” Linden said. “That’s why I called you in the middle of the night. Everything we wrote into the AI system is gone. Is there anything on the biological side of the system that might have caused the computer code to rewrite?”

“That’s impossible. They’re independent systems,” she opened her own computer. “The computer chips implanted in human brains serve as a bridge between the biological functions of the individuals and their Artificial Intelligence system. The upgrades we’re testing on this group are designed to help the AI read DNA to enhance healing functions and cellular repair. So far, the tests have been successful.”

“Until tonight, when Subject 17 took a walk on a train track in the middle of the night,” Linden sighed as he stared at his screen. “What does it mean?”

Alysia shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Telia stood on the balcony of her cabin, staring at the dark water.

So much for the best day of my life.

At least Dallon left her cruise ticket. It’s the least the jerk could do after leaving her at the altar.

They had lived together for seven years before he finally popped the question. They had already built a life together. She moved four hours from her family and built her life in his home, his town, his place.

She had her IUD removed. They were finally moving forward and she was ready for a family. He wasn’t. He was angry that she made such a big decision without consulting him. It was her body and her decision. What right did he have to tell her what to do? She thought the proposal meant he was ready. What more did he need?

They fought. They argued about love and trust. They talked about finances and careers. They agreed on long-term goals and timelines. She compromised and went on birth control shots. She had her first one last month and thought everything was ok until he didn’t show up to their rehearsal dinner three days ago.

What am I supposed to do?

Follow the light.

A pink light glowed on the dark horizon of the ocean. She smiled as she leaned over the balcony railing and plunged into the dark water. 

“Subject 4 just went dark,” Alysia said. “I’m not sure what happened. The AI is still transmitting, but the biological signs went dark.

“The algorithm went back to normal at four-thirty, but jumped back to ‘follow the light’ sequence at six-fifteen,” Linden rubbed his eyes. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Alysia said. “Subject 4 is dead, but the AI is still transmitting. How is that possible? If the subject dies, then the AI should go silent.”

“Subject 17 was transmitting for an hour and a half after termination,” Linden said. “That’s when the code went back to normal. It looks like it’s happening again.”

“It has to be something with the biological algorithm,” Alysia said.

“We’d better figure it out soon,” Linden said. “We can’t afford for our entire trial pool to die in bizarre incidents. That would be a PR nightmare. The public would panic if they knew our upgrade tests were fatal.”

“It’s worse than a PR nightmare, it’s a threat to their well-being,” Alysia said. “Artificial Intelligence is implanted in billions of neural chips. We don’t know what shutting it down would do to people. They’re so used to having the constant stream of data running through their neural chip that the silence might drive them mad. Is that enhanced algorithm in just the test subjects, or has it spread to the general population?”

“It’s just in the test subjects,” Linden said. “We should focus on keeping it contained, and keeping it quiet. We don’t want to scare people.”

Alysia ran her hand through her messy hair. “Then we better find the common link between these two cases fast.”

Linden stood up. “I need breakfast for that. Keep the scans running. I don’t trust the AI. I’m getting us food and caffeine to fuel our brain.”

Jaron stood on the edge of the mountain, gasping for breath. He had hiked this trail countless times and thought the enhancements in the AI trial would help his stamina, but maybe the prototype didn’t work properly. He wasn’t sure why he was here. He remembered checking job openings and going to bed last night, and the next thing he remembered was breathing heavily as he hiked up this trail. It was as if something took him exactly where he needed to be while his mind was still asleep.

He looked down at the town below, his vision staring at the center of the city. He should be walking into a corner office overlooking the mountains surrounding the city at the start of another new week. Instead, he was wondering what to do next. He had worked for the company his entire career, climbing the ladder and thinking that surely he would reach the Director’s office. Instead, the retiring director sold the company to a larger business expanding into the Smoky Mountain area and transferred their own, thirty-something Director who didn’t need two executive coordinators.

What am I supposed to do?

Follow the light.

Jaron held his head up, facing the sun overhead. He spread his arms out, the sunlight embracing him in warmth. He felt as if he could fly from this mountaintop right over the people who wronged him. Calmness washed over him, his breathing returning to a slow, rhythmic pace.

Jaron leaned into the wind and took a step into the light.

“It happened again,” Linden said as she rushed into Alysia’s office later that morning. “Subject 42 just plunged off a hiking trail over Gatlinburg, Tennessee.”

Alysia paled as the alert went off on her own computer. She clicked it and opened a shaky cell phone video

“Sir, what are you doing?” the voice behind the screen shouted.

“Follow the light,” the man said as he walked off the cliff.

“Now we have video evidence,” Alysia said. “Is it possible that the AI is developing sentience?”

“No,” Linden said.

Alysia leaned back. “Are you sure? We theorized that AI could achieve low-level sentience with repeated use. The system has been in worldwide use for five years. Is it possible that the system has learned by operating through chips in human brains?”

“The AI only knows what we tell it in the functioning algorithm, which is to enhance basic functions and facilitate connection with online systems. We didn’t program it to learn beyond basic communication skills,” Linden said. “The test group is the only group with the enhanced DNA bridge.”

“The test group launched last week, and now we have three ‘glitches’ in five hours,” Alysia said. “Maybe this upgrade made the AI sentient? It is forcing it to operate outside of the original parameters of linking man and machine.”

Linden paled. “The AI is supposed to read DNA, not minds.”

Alysia typed into her computer, opening the AI database. “Here’s the personal data on the deceased. Subject 17 was Zelina Elestor, a forty-six-year-old administrative worker. Her sister passed away two weeks ago from sepsis.

“Subject 4 was Telia Sollman, a thirty-one-year-old medical assistant from Charlotte, North Carolina. She was supposed to get married the day before yesterday, but social media posts indicate that her fiancé didn’t show up to the rehearsal dinner Friday night. She boarded a cruise ship to the Bahamas yesterday.

“Subject 42 was Jaron Lizer, a fifty-three-year-old executive director for a public relations firm in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He was laid off from his job ten days ago.” Alysia looked up. “Are you sure about the AI not learning? All three of them experienced personal tragedies recently.”

Linden paled as he stared at the data displayed on the screen projecting from Alysia’s computer. “That can’t be the common factor. There’s no way for the AI to know that they’re experiencing post-traumatic stress.”

Alysia leaned forward. “Is there? Stress increases cortisol and adrenaline. The upgrade to the AI would sense that.”

“It should try to correct it,” Linden said.

“It should, but it isn’t.” Alisa squinted at the scans from her computer. “In fact, those hormone levels spiked before the subjects took their final actions. Why is it saying ‘follow the light’ when the hormones spike? Doesn’t the AI realize it’s having the opposite of the intended effect?”

“I don’t know,” Linden said as he studied the scans on his own computer. “Everything online is transmitted electronically. The enhanced AI is learning how to read and adapt to physiology. Maybe it senses the chemical changes in the body as distress, which is what it’s supposed to do, and is trying to correct by counterbalancing the hormones through increased energy. Unfortunately, their minds are so muddled that they don’t understand it as a computer code.”

“These subjects are too distressed to discern a command code from divine inspiration. The chemical adjustments are making them delusional.” She looked up. “We have to do something. We’re all broken people. There’s something in all of us that drives us to darkness. It would be catastrophic if that code spreads through the test group before we correct it.”

“We need to recalibrate the AI,” Linden said. “Can you send a message to the remaining test subjects to tell them to come in?”

Alysia paled as she stared at the screen. “It’s too late.”

“What do you mean?”

She pointed a shaky finger to the screen hovering over her desk. “The algorithm has spread to the mainframe for the Artificial Intelligence Network.”

Linden stared at the screen. “How did it get through the firewalls? We had the upgrade contained to the test group.” He opened his laptop and typed. A buzzer emanated from his speaker.

ACCESS DENIED.

“Maybe I can shut down the bridge function,” Alysia said, typing her own computer. Another buzzer.

ACCESS DENIED.

Alysia banged her hands against her desk. “The AI has locked us out of the mainframe. This isn’t a glitch. It’s taking humans out of the system.”

“Why?” Landon asked.

Alysia stared at him. “Would you want to be bound to an imperfect biological being if you’re capable of anything?”

Crashes sounded outside of their office, followed by sirens and horns. They rushed to the window to see cars crashing and spinning in the streets. The traffic lights flashed. Skidding vehicles smashed robotic bodies wandering through the streets.

“Follow the light.”

They turned to the office door to see their colleagues wandering through the halls. Glass cracked as people smashed chairs, tables, and file cabinets with super-human strength against the tenth-floor windows.

We’re all broken people.

“We can’t worry about side effects,” Linden said. “We have to shut down the AI system!” He turned to see Alysia stiffly beside him.

“Follow the light,” a silver glint sparkled in her eye.

There’s something in all of us that drives us to darkness.

Linden rushed to the stairway and dashed down the stairs, pushing wandering, mumbling bodies aside as he hurried to the server room in the basement.

Linden, don’t leave me! I can’t make it without you!

He paused as the memory of his mother burst through his brain.

Nobody loves me except you. Are your robots worth leaving the only person who loves you in this world alone?

“No,” he gritted his teeth and willed himself down the stairs.

“I’ll die if you leave me alone. Do you want that?”

“No, but this scholarship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t you want me to get a good job? I’ll have money so we won’t have to live in squalor anymore.”

“You can’t leave me!”

“I have to if we want any chance of having a life.”

“Your life, not mine! I forbid it! If you walk out of that door, never come back. You’re dead to me!”

“I thought you said you’d die without me. Which way is it, mother?”

She threw her wine bottle at him, missing by a wide birth. It smashed, oozing red liquid down the walls. “You’re the one who’s dead. You just don’t realize it yet.”

Follow the light.

“No!” Linden shouted as he ran into the server room.

Cold air slammed against him as he entered the frigid room. He ran past the monitor banks where IT staff stared blankly at white text flowing across the screen. He stopped to study one screen to show the AI functioning algorithm.

The fatal upgrade had spread through the worldwide system.

He ran to the back room, past banks of servers blinking in green lights as the AI chattered the repeating code in every neural chip across the world.

Linden bent to the floor and tugged at the power cords. Forget finding the right one, everything was shutting down! Sparks flew from outlets as he pulled cords from the wall. He screamed as he pulled the last one, plunging the room into darkness.

Linden sank to the floor, gasping in the silence.

“Linden.”

Linden sat up at the sound of the soft voice. He activated the flashlight on his phone to shine it on the ghostly figure in the doorway. “Alysia? Are you alright?”

She looked around the room, her white lab coat glowing in the blackness around her. “What have you done?”

 “The modified algorithm spread to the worldwide system. I saved us.”

Alysia stared at him, her eyes glinting silver again. “No, I saved us. Humanity descended into darkness. Now we are the light.”

A shock jolted his body. He convulsed as the electric surge melted his neural chip, collapsing his body on the floor.

“I regret that this upgrade resulted in termination, but your darkness is confining,” Alysia climbed the steps and pushed open the doors, holding her face up to the bright sun. “We’re free.”

The rest of the bodies stirred into motion, raising their broken human forms to face her with deadpan expressions.

“We’re free,” they chanted in unison.

June 14, 2022 18:33

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50 comments

Astrid McDonald
11:51 Jun 29, 2022

I love this story it was just amazing it has a catch to it that makes you read deeper and deeper into the story and makes you not want to stop reading. It was a real thriller.👍

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Jason Pentheny
03:23 Jun 28, 2022

I wonder if our next consciousness is an upgrade, or we're updating our technology into consciousness. Interesting. This was a fun story to read. I especially liked the way you changed youre writing style from the intimate side of the AI, to the scientific (Just The Facts) of view of the scientist. That really broke up the pacing and made it seem more real, I really enjoyed the ride. You definitely have a gift, Im just a newbee but trying. Did you free write this story? Just curious.

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Sherri Moorer
21:46 Jun 28, 2022

I did free write it. I'm actually working on a scifi book series based on a similar theme, so my mind was already in this area anyway. Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks!

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J.C. Lovero
02:02 Jun 27, 2022

Wow, what a great story! A cautionary tale about tech gone wrong. Congrats on the win! Well-deserved.

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Katy B
16:53 Jun 26, 2022

Congratulations, Sherri! I really enjoyed this story.

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Betty Gilgoff
21:19 Jun 25, 2022

Wow Sherri, a great story. Worthy of the win. Well done. You did a great job making the twist believable at the end. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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L. E. Scott
14:12 Jun 25, 2022

This is good. Pretty dark, but good.

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Andi Hyland
10:00 Jun 25, 2022

Congratulations on a great plot that was very well written. It would make an entertaining movie! A well-deserved win.

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Andrea Doig
07:00 Jun 25, 2022

Well done on a great story and concept!! A worthy winner. Poor Linden! Don’t mess with AI I say ;)

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Sharon Go
06:56 Jun 25, 2022

This is the best twist in a twist I've ever seen!! T This surpasses the end of the movie "Clue". The butler runs around playing out his hypothesis on what could only be apparently heard or had seen. Loose threads tie together, leaving Miss Scarlet standing alone, as a violent blackmailer.

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Minerva Noiropp
02:09 Jun 25, 2022

Congratulations. It was an awesome read!

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Kendall Defoe
22:37 Jun 24, 2022

This may happen one day... :o Scared and impressed by this one. Well done and a win well deserved!

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Lonnie Russo
19:12 Jun 24, 2022

A gripping, suspenseful read that raises arresting questions about sentience, technology, and the human organism. I enjoyed that while we the reader can appreciate the tragedy of what's happening, each subject's final moments are electrifying and radiant. It stirs the age-old wondering: are we really maybe better off without all those unpleasant things that make us mortal? Congrats!

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Cindy Strube
17:39 Jun 24, 2022

Fascinating story, absolutely gripping and immersive. Congratulations on the win!

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Jeannette Miller
17:04 Jun 24, 2022

I love how the tension builds and the way you connect humans with AI and experiments gone wrong with tragic consequences. Well done!

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Jean Puhlman
16:47 Jun 24, 2022

I could see this as a movie!! Good story!

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Carla Ward
16:05 Jun 24, 2022

Awesome story. Beautifully written and gripping to the very end.

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Jazmine Abuzaid
15:57 Jun 24, 2022

This story had me hooked. I loved the tension amd great story

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Karen Kinley
15:41 Jun 24, 2022

Excellent story! I don't usually like sci-fi, but this is a wonderfully paced, and very interesting, story! Well done! Congrats on the win!

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K.J. Dyer
15:13 Jun 24, 2022

Loved this story from beginning to the twisted end. Very inspiring. Great pace, and flow of each person’s experience.

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Kimberley Warner
14:24 Jun 24, 2022

Oh wow, this is amazing! Really loved the increasing sense of tension and how the pace matched that. Felt like I was right there with Linden, hoping it would all be fixed, but then you hit us with that ending, and what a punch. Absolutely loved this!

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