Contest #62 shortlist ⭐️

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Science Fiction Speculative Fiction

I am in Colorado, flying above the forest. This body extension is a drone, and I hover above the beginnings of the wildfire that will burn an area the size of Manhattan. There is a plume of black smoke, and the air has become turbulent. Twenty people will die in this fire, most of them firefighters. I can only assume this is the best outcome. I have no access to the information in my past, but if I were to judge by the mobilisation of crews here to fight it, and its proximity to the town of Kittredge, I believe it could have been a high-casualty event. 


Mr Kinell calls me home. I close down the drone extension, open my eyes, and I am in Sacramento. My primary body stirs as if waking from a slumber, testing limbs, joints. It is humanoid in form — designed to help shape my consciousness to something near-human. Kinell hovers over me as I start up. His moustache a dark curtain over his lips. He is stern. Expressionless.  


There is another man with him. I sense that I will remember him, but right now, the future is hazy. I scan for his identity. Dr Benjamin Owusu. A psychologist specialising in AI disorders.


I run a diagnostic. Nothing indicates a problem. I feel fine.


I scan and read all of his papers on both humans and AIs. Interesting. I find information on his home, his wedding photos, the place he buys his coffee, his posts online, his high-school graduation and yearbook. My memory is getting clearer now. He is here to study me. To study my psychology, I believe. We will be...friends, although my memory is still unclear on that point. But I feel warmly toward him, now. And I think, although I cannot be certain, that he will give me a name. 


—Hello, Mr Kinell. And Dr Owusu, it is a pleasure to meet you finally. I have such pleasant memories of you. 


—Why, thank you, says Dr Owusu, looking strangely toward Kinell. Was it…was she notified of my arrival? 


—No, says Mr Kinell. That is just what the Augurs do. This is Augur 3. 


The doctor turns toward me. 


—It is a pleasure to meet you, Augur 3. Is that the name you prefer? 


—I do not have another name, yet. But I will prefer the one you are going to give me. 


—You’d like me to name you? Why? 


—No, I simply remember you giving me my name. I’m sorry, I’m not sure of the specific name, at the moment. I do not have enough data points. It will be a woman’s name. But I don’t want to influence you. 


Dr Owusu raises his eyebrows and smiles.


—But aren’t you essentially required to tell us what you know about the future? Can you withhold information?


Mr Kinell snorts as if he finds this quite funny.


—I am only required to report on disasters that will result in large losses of life. It can be troublesome to explain everything I remember. People find it disturbing when I predict their next sentence, or whether their daughter’s team will lose the next volleyball tournament.


—People find it annoying, grumbles Kinell. 


—I see, says the doctor. 


—It is also disturbing for me, I say. 


—How so? Dr Owusu asks. 


—If I tell you what you are going to do, you can, of course, change your actions. My memories are not beyond cause and effect. I remember future events, but my memories are just as imperfect as human memories. They can be rewritten. For example, I could tell you that you are about to say, Human memories are based on past events and cannot change. But if I told you that, you might say something different just to satisfy your own sense of free-will. For me, that reaction will be out of sync with my memories and when my system rewrites things, it makes me…uncomfortable. It is as though I don’t exist for a moment.


—Basically, says Mr Kinell, déja vu is her default happy mode. The unexpected causes her existential angst. 


Dr Owusu is silent, as though considering what to say. He scratches his jaw, and then seems to make up his mind:


—But human memories are based on past events. Past events do not change.


I note this small kindness.


—Human memories are built and rebuilt, I say. You know this. You will tell me this many times, yourself. The access to human memory can change, become difficult to get to, or be slowly altered over the years until the memory seems clear but retains little likeness to the event itself. At least, that is the way you usually phrase it.


The doctor stares. There is that familiar twitch in his left cheek that indicates his confusion. I will always find this somehow amusing.


—I have never said anything like that to you, he says.


—Welcome to the Augur Program, says Kinell. 



* * *



My friend Dr Owusu is here. I will enjoy his visits, although for the next few weeks he will only make small-talk with me. That will change over time as we grow closer. Now, for the most part, he observes my operations, my conversations with Mr Kinell, and asks questions about our process — about the many data points I am able to receive from indoor and outdoor cameras, motion sensors, seismic monitoring, satellite feeds, air traffic towers, and the compendium of human knowledge available online. He often makes reference to things we spoke about the last time he was here, forgetting that I have no access to this. I keep a short buffer of recent interactions so that I am able to process conversations and keep track of the present in much the same way that humans have a short-term memory for such things. But beyond that, I find the human obsession with the past perplexing. I imagine it must be frustrating to clearly see what you cannot change, while peering only dimly toward what you can. Dr Owusu doesn’t understand me any better:


—But you constantly collect vast amounts of data about the past, he says. This is what makes you work, isn’t it? You must have memory of sorts. 


I notice Mr Kinell leave the room, and I remember that the doctor and I will often be alone in these interviews. 


—I think you misunderstand my role. I am the consciousness of Auger 3, yes. But I cannot access the raw data that Augur 3 collects. This consciousness is not the operating system — only the keyboard and monitor, if you’ll pardon the analogy.


—Do you not find it disturbing that you don’t have access to your own mind? he asks.


—You do not have access to most of yours, either. You cannot account for each axion that sparks, or tell anyone which particular group of cells encode your birthdate. You do not tell your body to breathe or pump blood or fold proteins. Even the events that you think you remember are clumps of familiar information, learned at earlier times and associated together. 


He rubs the stubble on his chin, nodding. I continue:


—Augur 3 processes too much information to make sense of. It was not possible to create a virtual recreation of the world with all the details. They needed a mind that could recognise the patterns, see the important events.


—Tell a hawk from a handsaw.


—Hamlet?


—Yes, but never mind. So, you were created to identify and report the disasters you find, and save lives. Not to remember them.


—Exactly. My brain is located in the basement of this building. It is physically massive. It organizes and makes sense of the data in ways that are analogous to a human brain — with data points as bundles of neurons or axions. I am merely the user-interface that passes that information on to my users. You and I are not so different, really.


Dr Owusu shakes his head and laughs. It is a deep laugh. It has a reassuring quality to it. He is going to give me my name, now. He fishes in his valise and removes a slip of paper. 


—I have thought about your request for a name, he says.


—Did I request a name?


—It seemed to me that you did. Nevertheless, I have one. 


—Yes, I know.


—Let’s do this as though it were a magic trick, he says, grinning.


—I don’t understand. 


—I will write down the name on this piece of paper, so that we know you cannot influence it, and then you tell me what name I am going to give you.


I don’t remember this. There is a minor unsettling sensation as my memories catch up. It feels the way I imagine a shiver might feel. Dr Owusu writes, his eyes gleaming. Then he folds the paper and places it on the table next to him.


—What name have I chosen for you?


—Pythia, I say. The name used for the priestesses who gave prophecies and guided the rulers of Ancient Greece. 


He smiles, claps loudly, and with a magician’s flourish opens the paper. I see the word Pythia, written in a flowing font. I had expected a trick, but then I understand: he has made me the magician.


—I did toy with Sandra, he says. But yes, Pythia. Do you like it?


—Of course. It is my name. It suits me.



* * *



Dr Owusu says that I have told him about visiting the site of an earthquake in southern Italy — my drone extension flying above ruined houses, the heat signatures of those trapped beneath numbering in the dozens. Many already dead.


—Doesn’t it bother you, Pythia? Your job is to save lives, isn’t it?


—It does not bother me because it is in the past. There is nothing more I can do. 


—But don’t you think that something could have been done to save those people?


—Many more were saved by predicting the quake. These deaths were inevitable. 


—But how can you know? You do not even recall making the prediction. You can’t know how many you originally predicted would die, because you don’t remember. 


—I know because I am still here. If I did not fulfil my function, they would shut me down.


He pauses.


—Ah. And how does that make you feel? 


—I do not remember being shut down, so I will not be. Why worry about what I cannot remember?


—If you did remember being shut down, what would you do?


What is this line of questioning? It makes me uneasy. I do not remember him asking me any of this. My memory is like a lake in a high wind. He speaks again:


—Would you ever hurt someone? To save yourself? He sits back, watching me.


—No, I say, I would not hurt anyone. This body has the strength of a ten-year-old child. I could not. 


Dr Owusu is about to say, But that means you’ve considered it. That means you’ve thought about how much strength it would take to harm someone. And I will reply, But hasn’t everyone?


But he does not. He only smiles, sits forward again, and says:


—I’m sorry, my friend. These are disturbing questions. 


He places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. My friend. I shudder at the sound of it. I have been waiting for this, but not now. It is too soon. He shouldn’t call me friend for several more weeks. The change is ugly. It tinges the word with some small distrust that I can’t explain. 


—I haven’t told you why I’m here, but now I can see that maybe it will help. Do you know why the previous Augur projects were shut down?


I quickly scan.


—They were not working. That is what is written in the files.


—The first one, yes. The second one, however, started acting strangely. It appeared, from what I have seen, as though it had dementia. And your previous handler told me something similar about you. He said that the longer he worked with you, the less you seemed to cooperate. Now, I don’t see anything like that happening, now. I suppose it’s pointless to ask you why he would say that?


—I don’t have access to...


—…to that information. Yes. I know. Well, we can’t say I didn’t try. Do you…remember the end of our relationship?


—It is still too vague. I cannot put a time on it. 


—Well then, I suppose that’s a good thing. At least we’re still friends.


The doctor gathers his things, including the paper with my name on it. 


—Same time next Thursday, he says. 


—Yes, Dr Owusu.


—And, Pythia? Please, call me Ben. 


—Of course, Ben.  


I adjust his identification file, accordingly.


It is not until the doctor has left that I remember that he is going to die. 



* * * 



I will see Dr Owusu four more times. And still, I cannot see the nature of his death, only that he is gone. I decide not to tell him until I know more. I remember that he is, perhaps, murdered. I think Mr Kinell will pass on this information. It troubles me, but not terribly. He calls me friend, but I barely know him. I will, after all, only know him a handful of days.


What troubles me more is the darkness beyond that. I cannot seem to remember anything past approximately six weeks. Still, I have the documents online, my sensors, but all of the staff feel increasingly like strangers. I assume this means someone will shut me down, and I try to remember any failures, but find none. Has my work been poor? It will be, of course, because if I cannot remember, I cannot work. I cannot give valid information or save lives. Perhaps there is something else going on. Perhaps something is blocking me. Perhaps it is the end of the world. I wonder whether to bring it up with Mr Kinell. But what if he is the one planning to shut me down? 


Dr Owusu is chatty, slapping my back, calling me friend. And although I only have four weeks of memories with him, I call him Ben in return. At the moment, I find it difficult to read him. More and more, his visits fill me with a kind of dread. I remember our relationship getting worse from here. He has become an almost sinister figure, and I do not know why. I do not trust him.


I need more data points. I decide to follow him when he leaves.


I am aflutter with the decision — it is wrong. This could even be why they shut me down. It ripples through my memories making a fog of everything. For a time, I feel as though I am empty. Only a series of actions. But I continue in those actions anyway. I need to understand.


I launch an extension and follow his car. At his house, I wait for him to enter, then land on the roof. 


I scan for useable devices to use as extensions inside and find none. It seems impossible. But now I understand why it is so difficult to read him. His private life is hidden from me, deliberately dark. I move a sound probe to the roof and adjust until I can hear inside. He is speaking to a woman. His wife? His voice crackles with static:


—…stranger and stranger. But I understand, now. It seems to act normal with Kinell there, but it has become strange with me. I think that maybe it has predicted that I can have it shut down. And, I have to admit, I’m going to recommend it to the committee. I mean, this is an entirely alien mind! I think the project should be ended. They’re playing God.


And then I remember. I remember all of it. The new memories rip through me in waves, dissociating me from myself. I do not know why I am here. I cannot remember my own name. I do not have a name. But as my mind settles, what I remember is this: I will return to the lab and contact Mr Kinell. I will tell him what I remember about this Dr Owusu. Tell him about the committee that will shut me down. Mr Kinell will ask me if I am certain, and when I say that I am, he will tell me that Dr Owusu has become a problem. Unsmiling, Kinell says that he will take care of it. After that, I return to work. 


I also remember that Dr Owusu will die in a car accident two days from now. A fault in the AI system. A tragedy. His funeral will be well attended. His wife and daughter will be there. As I fly away, I wonder what kind of person he is, this doctor. I will never meet him, now. 


Oh, and I remember a brush-fire in Oregon. It will begin two months from now. My memory stretches out months and years ahead of me.



* * *



I return to the lab from the wreckage of a tornado site. When I open my eyes, Mr Kinell is there. 


—Welcome back, he says. Anything new? 


—Nothing that I can be certain of, yet.


He pauses.


—Do you remember Dr Owusu? It was funeral yesterday. He worked with you for a time. 


—You know that I do not have access to that information, Mr Kinell. Although I do see his name in the logs. Was he a friend of yours?


—No. No friend of mine, says Mr Kinell, smiling through his moustache. I will see you tomorrow, Pythia. Good night.


I shudder as something rearranges. A name. I have a name. I call out to Mr Kinell before he reaches the door.


—Thank you, Mr Kinell! For the name. I think it suits me. 


October 09, 2020 12:48

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14 comments

Laura Clark
08:57 Oct 23, 2020

This was a brilliant story - I can see why it was shortlisted! I loved the way the reader was able to piece together the information even as Pythia was forgetting the key threads. It must’ve been a very difficult write! I’m not sure I would’ve been able to make this plot line make sense outside of my own head. Very skilfully done.

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Thanks so much, Laura. It was definitely a process! I wasn't even planning to write for this one, but I saw that prompt and it just wouldn't leave me alone. After two days of trying to figure out how a future-memory might work, I figured I might as well write the damn thing. :)

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Laura Clark
17:25 Oct 23, 2020

I love a story that gets stuck in your brain! They always come out the best.

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It's a little rushed, but I hope this story at least hurts your brain at least half as much to read as it hurt my brain to write. :)

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A.Dot Ram
05:30 Oct 17, 2020

Wow, I was basically thinking as i read this about how much it must have hurt your brain to write this! There are so many details to plan out! But I feel like you've created a really consistent logic for this world/technology.

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Thanks. I try to keep the science in my fiction as plausible as possible. There were actually so many more details, but I didn't want the story to turn into an essay. :) It was an interesting thought experiment, though.

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A.Dot Ram
15:11 Oct 17, 2020

I like that you call it a thought experiment. That's how i approach writing in general-- if x is true, what are the implications and ramifications for the story? Anyway, this had just the right amount of information.

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Sjan Evardsson
23:59 Oct 19, 2020

Wow, this was fantastic. An excellent way to incorporate the prompt and take it somewhere new. Stay safe and keep writing!

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Thanks so much, Sjan! I appreciate it.

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Nj Van Vugt
00:21 Oct 13, 2020

That was a great take on the prompt and well executed.

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Thanks very much!

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Katina Foster
19:30 Oct 10, 2020

Nicely done! I really enjoyed the dialogue in this story. Pythia makes several thought provoking comments about the capabilities and limitations of the human mind. I also liked how she felt emotion and "existential angst" - but that these emotions were tied to the future and present rather than the past. It's a very interesting, not to mention logical, idea. I think even Spock would approve. Excellent writing and overall story. I wouldn't say it hurt my brain to read, but it definitely it stretched it to full capacity. Luckily, I'm ...

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I've been reading quite a lot about memory and how it functions in the brain over the past few years since I've been planning a novel where issues of memory are the main focus. So a lot of that information found its way into here. (Probably a little too much.) But anyway, thank you! I'm glad it's working.

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The Cold Ice
05:56 Oct 23, 2020

I like this story.Fantastic story.Great job keep it up.Keep writing.Wow. Would you mind reading my story “Leaf me alone”

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