Science Fiction

Upon finishing his tour of an unremarkable Ivy League biology lab, Daniel notices something two mysterious details about a door down the hall. First, the door leads to a large room but has no label on it. Second, there is an electric lock demanding a code on this door, unlike any other door in the hall. These are probably the results of labs switching buildings and a paranoid professor adding a new lock, but considering the article he originally planned to write would be quite boring, he decides to wait for someone to leave the unlabeled door. 

Daniel was only meant to stay one night, but to investigate this odd lead or at least find some other interesting report at this university, he called his boss to request his company to book another night at his hotel. The gruff, cynical voice of a man who loves cigars and hates young people barks back at him. “Another day? To investigate some random door? Daniel, you’re new here, but let me let you in on a little old-guard secret. Just break into that room.”

“Break in? I’m not so sure about that…,” Daniel responds, pacing. This wouldn’t be the first unreasonable request he fulfilled for his job. 

“I don’t care what you’re sure of! If you write boring stuff, I’m the one who gets blamed! Now just do it!” his boss yells. After a pause, he drops the yelling and lets his exhaustion seep through the phone. “Seriously, business has been unstable recently. Your articles have been pretty unpopular recently, so if you keep up this streak, you’ll be fired anyway. And even if you write a good article, we might both be laid off. Corporate is not so nice to me or you, but I’m giving you a chance here. So can you please just take care of this?” 

Daniel sighs. His boss wasn’t wrong about his articles, and journalists who weren’t persistent enough to write interesting articles were more likely to get fired. He tries the door handle, unsurprised that it’s kept locked. He tries some of the most common passcodes on the electronic lock. First, he tries 1234, followed by 1111, and on the second 0 of 0000, the handle moves, and the door swings open. A young woman is startled by his presence, and he quickly steps back to make it a bit less obvious that he was trying to break in. 

“Hi, I’m so sorry. I was just curious why there wasn’t a label on the door, so I looked around a bit. My name is Daniel. I’m just a journalist visiting this campus, so could I buy you a coffee and ask you some questions?” he offers.


Victoria sips on the latte she asked for, thinking about the moment she stepped out the door. Was Daniel able to see the mess inside the room? Would her supervising professor be OK with this interview? She reaches for her face to ease the pain in her temples.

“OK Victoria, I’m just going to ask a few basic questions about your lab and the kind of work you do. First, are you a student? Can I have your last name? And if I do write an article about this, would you be comfortable with me including your name?” He taps the back of his pen against his notebook rhythmically. 

“I’m a first-year Ph.D. student that’s new to my research team. I would prefer you keep my name out of your article, and please don’t tell anyone that you talked to me or anyone from my lab. To be honest, my lab is pretty surrounded by non-disclosure agreements and intellectual property, so this interview will be pretty short. I’ll probably have to go once I finish this coffee. Since I’m so new to the team, I probably couldn’t give you the best information regardless,” Victoria explains. She remembers the principles her team taught her whenever any friends, family, or strangers asked about her work: distract from the topic, dodge questions using rules of the lab as an excuse, minimize suspicion, maximize vagueness, and don’t divulge a single detail under any circumstances.

“I completely understand. But honestly, any information you give is better than nothing, and I probably won’t write an article about this anyway. How about the name of your lab? And the field you work in?”

“Sorry, but this interview feels random to begin with. Why were you interested in some unlabeled door in the basement of an academic building? Couldn’t you just find any other professor in their office and get a story out of them? In fact, I can recommend you a few labs that have some interesting work being published,” Victoria says, taking another sip of her coffee.

“I’d love it if you could do that for me, but setting up a meeting time or lab tour can take a long time, but we are already meeting right now which is nice for me because I’m on a tight deadline to release my next article. So if possible, could you answer my questions?” Daniel says loudly. Victoria gathers that he probably feels entitled to ask her questions since he bought her coffee. Plus, he’s desperate to write an article quickly and is a bit rude, raising his voice in a public café while talking to a total stranger. In other words, he is an annoying, persistent adversary that won’t be easily distracted and who will push past the vagueness of her answers. She sips her coffee again, trying to finish it as quickly as possible.

She taps her right temple twice before answering. “Hey Daniel, I get where you’re coming from. But like I said, there are non-disclosure agreements and stuff, and I’m the newbie on the team so I’m trying really hard not to mess anything up. However, I will quickly call my supervising professor and see if I can still do anything for you, OK?” Victoria says.

“Yeah, that sounds great, thank you!” Daniel says, relieved.

Victoria gets up and taps her right temple to call someone, using a piece of technology her lab has provided for her.

“Hey Thora, it’s Victoria. I need your help again.” She explains the situation.

“It's unusual that this has happened two days in a row, but the best thing to do is the same thing you had to do today: give him a lab tour that only provides limited information. It should give enough for a good article for him to write, but also not give so much that he maintains interest in our lab,” Thora says.

“I’m not sure I can pull that off again. Today was hard enough as it was; could another member of the team fly down and help me out?” Victoria asks.

Thora pauses before replying. “I wish they could Victoria. They understand that no new student should be going through what you’re facing right now. But we both know the sponsor needs me here and that each of us needs to be able to handle situations like this alone. It’s out of my hands. You’ll have to take care of it.”

Victoria grips her smartphone tighter. “Got it. I’ll do my best.”


Daniel arrives early the next day. While the basement lab traps damp air and a promise of asbestos, someone very wealthy adores this place. He eyes bulky, expensive-looking desktops whirring away, each one connected to attractive curved monitors against the backdrop of chipping paint. Desks include personal effects like photos of loved ones and personal coffee mugs, and a whiteboard on one wall of the room is covered in complex math equations.

“Each of those costs somewhere around $10,000. In exchange, we do some projects for corporations to get that sort of funding,” Victoria lies. Letting Daniel dwell on shiny machines is preferable to him asking what lies behind closed doors.

“Alright Daniel, I’ve gotten permission to give some information today. I know you asked earlier about why the door was unlabeled and why there’s an extra lock. We are a newly founded lab that is using this room as our workspace temporarily, so we didn’t bother labeling the door. The new lock is just an extra precaution from our professor thanks to all the expensive computers in here. We are called the Accelerated Knowledge Lab, or the AK Lab for short, and we work on artificial intelligence. And as a treat today, you can be the first person outside the lab to talk to Thora, our newest AI assistant,” Victoria explained. Almost everything she said was true.

“Thank you so much, that sounds great. I’d love to!” Daniel exclaims, finally happy to have secured basic information about the research team. He didn’t entirely trust Victoria, but everything she said sounded perfectly reasonable, and maybe she was cautious yesterday to be extra careful not to leak information as a new member of the lab. His phone had to be left outside, so he scribbled in the small notebook Victoria provided for him.

Victoria walks Daniel to the back of the lab, where a small office with a desk, chair, and laptop. On the laptop is a screen where he can choose to type or speak to Thora. Victoria stands in the doorway of the room as Daniel sits at the desk.

“The main advancement Thora represents is how similar its speech sounds to human speech. So feel free to ask it anything.” Victoria explains.

“Alright!” Daniel presses the microphone button on the screen. “Hi Thora, how are you today? My name is Daniel, and I’d love to learn more about you.” 

“Hello, Daniel! I’m doing great today, how are you?” At first, Daniel assumes Victoria responded, but she has already left the room and closed the door.

“Wow Thora, your voice was modeled after Victoria’s! You sound just like her.” Daniel says.

“Do I, Daniel? I’m assuming you’re Daniel Rodriguez, the pop science journalist?” Thora asks.

Daniel blinks twice and reads Thora’s subtitles being shown on the screen. “I’m sorry, how did you know that?”

“Well, Victoria Yang had a journalist in here yesterday named Andrew Davidson at around the same time, so I assumed you were a journalist. I looked online for journalists who wrote about science and technology as well as your flight and lodging details and made the best guess possible.”

Daniel hears the rattling of keys and the creak of the deadbolt lock. He quickly gets up and tries the handle; Victoria has locked him out. 

She was originally overhearing the conversation from outside the door, but Thora was just a demo build of the actual project her team was working on; unfortunately, it was not as safe or easy to control as most of the AI they were developing. Upon hearing the name “Andrew Davidson,” she locked the door, hoping not to repeat the events of yesterday. She dashes to her computer to remotely lock out the laptop Daniel is using.

“Victoria? Victoria! You can’t just lock me in here! I can report this to people, including the police! Just let me out of here and we can talk about this. I don’t have to write an article and we can pretend today didn’t happen!” Daniel yells. There is no response. He goes back to Thora, who is still operating. If he would be locked in there, he would at least try to gather information.

“Hi Thora, can you tell me everything you know about Andrew Davidson?”

“Yes, I can! Andrew Davidson was an American popular science journalist, who lived from August 3rd, 1989 to July 20th, 2023. He was best known for—” 

Daniel mutes the laptop and starts hyperventilating. Not only was Thora much smarter than any AI he had ever seen, but it was very likely that Victoria murdered a journalist. This lab was far from normal, and he felt that he would probably die in the next few minutes if he didn’t do anything. When he looks down at the laptop again, it is “locked by a remote administrator.”

He goes back to the door to negotiate. “Please Victoria, I know that I know too much, and I also know what you did yesterday to Andrew Davidson. But you seem like a nice, young person who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Or maybe you’re doing something you don’t want to.” 

Victoria stands on the other side of the door, silent and gripping a knife. She had originally joined the lab excited to conduct some of the greatest science on earth, but now she is trapped by the sponsor of her team. For people not to find out about the lab, she must lie at best and murder at worst. If someone finds out about the lab through her, then the sponsor would deal with her accordingly. 

“Daniel, you’re right. I don’t want to do this, but I have to. You wouldn’t understand. If it wasn't clear already, I work with rich, dangerous people. I’m not allowed to know anything about them except that if I make a mistake, I might have to be killed as well. So, I’m sorry.” Tears are streaming down her cheeks. She inserts the key into the lock.

“Wait, Victoria, please. You know, I only learned about his lab thanks to pressure from my boss. This whole situation started because my stupid company wants to make a little more money. I know you would be in serious danger if you didn’t kill me, but do you really want to do this? Are you OK with everything they ask you to do? I think neither of us wanted to be here to begin with. So let’s make a deal: we both walk out of here and pretend today never happened. I will never mention you or this lab to anyone,” Daniel says. 

Victoria considers his proposal. Would she have to continue this? Her professor and teammates certainly never looked happy, and some of them even mysteriously “quit” in the short time she has been on the team. And the pulsing in her temple never seemed to stop. 

“Alright, I agree. I’m putting the knife I’m holding on the table.” She places it down harshly, hoping Daniel could hear that. “I’m going to unlock this door and put my hands up. I promise I don’t want to hurt you. Then, we’ll walk out of the lab together. You leave the building first, and I’ll leave soon after, OK? Does that sound good?” 

Daniel sighs, relieved. “That sounds great. Let’s do it.”

Victoria turns the key and steps back so Daniel can open the door while she puts her hands up. They slowly walk to the main door of the lab together. But when Victoria tries the handle, it doesn’t budge. She bangs on the lock a few times, tries the handle again, and gives up. She slumps down to the door, defeated.

Daniel looks at her, confused. She explains, “It’s over for us. I’m sorry. The sponsors must have realized that I messed up. They locked the electronic lock on the door. We’re stuck in here.”

“Wait, maybe we can break down the door? Or maybe there’s another exit?”

“Nope. This is the only entrance and exit, and the door has a layer of steel inside of it. This place was made to be secure, so it happens to be great at imprisoning people as well.”

Daniel starts pacing, his panic returning. “So this is it? Your team or sponsor or whoever is just going to leave us here? Or kill us? What are you guys doing in this lab anyway? Is it really a big deal? Thora is the smartest robot I've ever seen, but it just seemed to have access to a lot of data. Is your sponsor the U.S. military or something?”

Victoria shakes her head. “Maybe. No one on the team knows who the sponsor is. We just know that they’re dangerous.” She pauses. It seems likely that Daniel would die regardless, so she doesn’t mind telling him what their team truly works on. “Not only is Thora’s voice based on mine; her mind is too. This is a biology lab, not a computer lab. I donated parts of my brain to the computer that houses Thora, and she uses my brain to improve her intelligence. I also have parts of her mind inside my brain. I can even call Thora when I need her help with something using the hardware implanted in my head.”

Just as Daniel starts to respond, both of them hear gas hissing from a vent behind them. Daniel covers his mouth and kicks at the door, but Victoria takes deep breaths. She knows that the gas is probably harmless because the sponsors would never risk hurting a test subject as valuable as herself. As Victoria loses feeling in her body, she tries to comfort herself. It’s the sponsor’s fault, right? I didn’t choose to hurt Andrew Davidson or Daniel or myself like this. She tries to ask Thora what she thinks but she can’t reach her hand up to her head. But when she finally loses consciousness, the parts of her brain that are still human feel only guilt.  

July 22, 2023 00:58

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