A disturbing science fiction story about a seemingly routine scientific mission to Jupiter that is threatened by the interpersonal relationships of its crew.
Content warning for fictional depictions of sexual content, including abuse and assault.
I didn’t always fantasise about killing him. I used to fantasise about fucking him, and when that lived up to expectations, I fantasised about marrying him. Which didn’t.
I’m a scientist. I’m supposed to look at problems clinically, rationally, dispassionately. Maybe he beat a small but vital part of that out of me, and enough electrons escaped the open circuit to forever unbalance me, to leave an empty space where nothing that was once me lives. And I’ve plugged that hole with fantasies. Fantasies of walking into the path lab and seeing him sprawled over one of his precious anaerobic chambers, face purple and bloated and stricken. Or red-raw and boiling inside scalding clouds of autoclave steam. Or bloody and blasted black, inside and out, because any vessel required to withstand high pressures can rupture; any number of things inside a vacuum can implode; centrifuge rotors can explode, and path labs are filled with the kind of chemicals that never should. Or sometimes, I just imagine him lying on the floor, the back of his skull caved in like eggshell, spilling blood and brains and cerebrospinal fluid. I’ve never been fussy. Perhaps I should have been.
My module is about a fifth the size of his. I enjoy its hugely claustrophobic smallness—small enough for only me, a chair, my laptop, and the Skinner box. Here is where I live, rather than the brilliantly austere labs or Engineering’s myriad compartments and old-school clutter. Or even the living quarters, designed, I’ve always suspected, by a man with a won’t-quit hard-on for ’80s sci-fi horror: no corner spared its curve, no straight edge its roll, no rectangle its oval. Not clinically white, but a kind of dull, matte off-cream that makes my skin pucker. In here, the walls are black and the light is low. There are no windows. There is no outside. There is no there.
I never want the coffee that Mas always brings me, never drink it. But he always brings it anyway.
“How is it going?”
I look at the Skinner box. “It’s not.”
“They didn’t take the bait?” He comes closer. When we stand side by side in front of it, our shoulders touch the walls, touch each other.
“No. They didn’t.”
He turns to look at me instead. His smile is crooked. “So you’re gonna have to torture them after all, huh?”
I don’t answer, but my chest feels tight, my palms prickle. I want to be annoyed, but I can’t be. He’s right. It’s that simple.
“How was he last night?”
I swallow, keep looking at the Skinner box’s windows, its locks, its cue lights. “Fine.”
Mas’s big hand turns my face towards his. He strokes two fingers over my eyebrow, one over the still-puffy tissue around my orbital bone, the yellow and green of its fading bruise.
“Fine is good, Evie,” he says, but he isn’t smiling. “Fine is better.”
In this tiny space, he shouldn’t be able to crowd me any more than he already is, but he can, he does. He turns us away from the Skinner box, puts one hand on my waist, smooths the other through my hair. Backs me up against one black wall.
I can see red threads through the white of his eyes. I can smell the clean grassy sweat of him, the coffee on his breath. I can feel the heat of him, the prickle of his stubble against my neck, the hard, long press of him against my thigh. I can feel my own heartbeat at my temples, my fingers, inside my ears.
“This is a bad idea, Mas. We shouldn’t.”
I always say it, and I never mean it. But I always say it anyway.
The three of us have dinner together. It’s just one of many rules, arbitrary and mandatory. We sit in our replica off-cream Nostromo and eat whatever our blood workups have determined we should.
“So where are we today, Professor?” Mas says, his voice too loud, too decided upon cheerful. It startles me a little, makes me think of long-limbed, white-faced, serious Boris. Mas is his replacement.
Don looks up from his tray. Arches one brow. “We’re at four point one seven AU, Masego.” Arches both to better effect. “We’ll be passing very close to Jupiter’s two outer moons, Callisto and Ganymede, later on tonight.”
Halfway. Finally, halfway. Five months, four weeks, two days. By tomorrow, we’ll have swung by Jupiter, and the gravitational assist with the last of our fuel will turn us back for home. That should make me feel better. But it doesn’t.
Mas grins with all his teeth. “Is that something we are supposed to be worried about?” He puts on his accent for me. Especially in front of Don, who sounds like a 1950s radio announcer. I haven’t seen Scotland, and Mas hasn’t seen Zimbabwe, for years. He does it to comfort, I think. To tether me to something other than this bloody place and this bloody life.
“You’re the engineer,” Don says, managing to make it sound janitorial.
“Yeah,” Mas laughs. Tries and fails to wink at me without Don seeing. “How many engineers you know look up at the stars?”
I eat so I don’t have to laugh. Smile. Talk.
I shouldn’t think about Boris. I can’t. Boris was the last mission. This is the new one.
We still share a bed, Don and I. We’re still husband and wife. Our quarters are our quarters; there has never been any space here for changing your mind, for saying I’ve had enough. A vow is a vow. A contract is a contract.
He last raped me in this bed more than three months ago. Three months, three weeks, and three days ago. Nights ago. It wasn’t rape to him. It was another mandatory obligation that he put a halt to halfway through to look down at me, down at us, with the same mild disgust that he reserves for low blood counts, Clostridium difficile, and high viral loads. I don’t think there’s been a single moment in our relationship that I haven’t felt like a bug on a slide. I used to find it flattering.
Rape isn’t enough for him now. He finds more pleasure in pain that he can better imagine. In pain that he can see. Don has no hidden depths. He’s as predictable as a response lever triggering food, as a fruit fly conditioned never to return to a hot side that has long ceased being hot.
He likes to choke and he likes pinch, to scratch. But mostly, he likes to punch. Maybe it makes him feel more like a man. And me less like a woman. I’ve never cared enough to wonder, even though that’s my profession, my vocation. I’ve never, ever had any urge to study Don like a bug on a slide.
Tonight, he lets me off the hook. Tonight, we wash, brush our teeth, undress, and get into bed, and not once does he speak to me, acknowledge me, even look at me. I used to think that was just another punishment, but now I know it’s not. On these nights, I really don’t exist. To him, I am negative space. I am invisible. I am a black hole. And that suits me just fine.
Other than the Nostromo, it doesn’t look like a spaceship, nor should it. Millions, I suspect, have been spent on aesthetic alone. Carbon composite nanotube walls and floors of grass. The long corridors are lined with bubbling tubes of algae and tanks of recycling water. They sound like fast streams, hot springs. There. Anywhere else but here.
Some days, I just walk along those corridors. Back and forth, around and around. Listening to the air, the water, the slow and steady thud of my heart.
It’s a house of many mansions—or, at least, of many doors. Almost all of them are locked. I’ve never tried them more than once. I’ve never wondered what’s behind them more than once. Which, if I cared, is probably the most palpable metaphor for my entire life. Sad and bad and indifferent. Too many locked doors to bother counting. To bother imagining.
I set down the coffee, turn around and press my palms against his pecs. Push him hard until he grins, until he moves. He leans back against the wall and lets me kiss him, lets me go on pushing him just to push him, to feel him, to feel something. He doesn’t need to turn us around; he doesn’t need to make me stop. He just lifts me up and pushes back. He fucks me inside that tiny free space between four black walls. Between a chair, my laptop, and the Skinner box. And when he starts to shake, I know it’s not from weakness. Or even exertion. Don can’t even slap me without breaking into an ugly sweat.
Afterwards, he does turn me around. Stands behind me, his big hands clasped around my waist, his chin on my shoulder.
“Tell me more about it,” he says. “Your Skinner box.”
He’s asked me before, but I’ve always managed to distract him. Now, he knows I can’t. Not yet, at least.
“You really want to know about this?”
“I really want to know about this.”
“All right.” I straighten my spine as we both look at its windows, locks, and cue lights. Mas strokes my forearms slow and careful, like I’m a feral cat.
“I guess you already know that a Skinner box is just an enclosed space to better deliver and monitor positive and negative conditioning. Reward and punishment. At its most basic, it’s a rat in a cage, pressing an operandum lever whenever a light goes green. He does it right, he gets food. He does it wrong, he gets electrocuted. The expectation of desire to eat the food or the fear of being electrocuted is unconditioned stimuli. But when the rat starts associating the lever or the green light with either expectation, that’s conditioned stimuli. We’ve taught him that. Made him think that. Made him expect that. We’ve rewired his brain.”
“Right.” I can feel the teeth of his grin against my neck, his nose in my hair. “Kind of like me getting a hard-on every time I smell strawberries. Or blue balls every time I hear the fucking swish of that path lab door.”
When I smile, he laughs. It rumbles through me, gives me goose bumps.
He points at the box. “And it’s the same principle for the nano—”
He presses harder against me to peer even closer, his nose almost touching the glass. “And they’re still in there?”
I smile at the wary doubt in his voice. “A whole swarm of them.”
He laughs again. “Right.”
“These ones are big boys. Ten micrometres. Zero point zero one of a millimetre.”
“But what’s the point? I mean, what does a nanite want? What is a nanite scared of?”
I take in a breath that tightens his hold on me.
“A nanite wants to learn. Same as anyone. I’m just trying to find out which way gives them more learning potential, more agency. Reward or punishment.” I shake my head. “And so far, my reward programs haven’t made any difference.”
“Which is why you’re going to punish them instead?” He strokes me from my crown to the base of my spine. “How the hell do you punish a nanite?”
A Skinner box doesn’t have to be a torture chamber. Not unless you’ve exhausted its every other function. And yet, it’s surprising just how often it is.
I shiver, disguise it inside a shrug. “I don’t know yet.”
“So, where are we today, Professor?”
Don snorts, sets down his cutlery. “You know, recently I’ve been wondering just what your problem is, Masego. A limited imagination, vocabulary, or IQ?”
Mas grins with all his teeth. “I just want to know how much longer I’m going to have to look at your ugly mug, man.”
“We’re at two point eight five AU,” I say. “About halfway between Jupiter and Ceres.” I risk looking at him. “Nowhere.”
Mas looks back. “No point getting my Polaroid out then, huh?” he says.
He’s pissed off tonight, and I don’t blame him, but it doesn’t help. It doesn’t even matter. I’ve no reason not to believe it’ll be just like last time. We’ll be stuck here, the three of us, for at least another four months, pissed off or not.
My mother used to say that it was the journey that was important, and not the destination. I never thought she was right. But the suits from Astro Labs do. And I might be flattered by Mas’s interest in my research, but that’s only ego, my ridiculous need for him to see me. In reality, it’s all just busywork. No different to Don’s biotech experiments or Mas running his endless simulations. Our work is not the mission. The destination is not the mission. My mission. I’ve always known that. And after the last one, I swore no more. Never again. Yet here I am. Here Don is. Here we both are. Just the same. Again.
I know why. If the reward is big enough, wanted or needed enough, a rat will endure pain past the point of recovery. Of sense. And that’s obvious why too. All life, after all, is just pushing levers and hoping.
It’s worse—so much worse—when he’s kind. Gentle. Tender. Tonight, Don brushes my hair with long, slow strokes until it feels as though I’m floating. His apologies drift around me like spring blossoms, cool and white. He talks about our wedding day: the ocean and big blue bowl of sky. The hydrangeas and pearl beads in my hair. How much his voice shook through the vows; how badly his skin itched. But it’s only when I cry that he smiles. That he kisses me. And I never know if he means what he says or if it’s just more cruelty.
I wait until he’s sleeping, and then I go out into the corridor, walk barefoot through the grass and bubbling springs. I stop outside Boris’s door, press my hot palms and forehead against its coolness. And then I sit cross-legged on the grass, with my back against the door, and sleep there until morning.
“Hey. Thanks.” I set the coffee down on the shelf beside the Skinner box.
Mas tries to kiss me, but I don’t let him. As much for his sake as mine. Since slingshotting around Jupiter, I’ve been trying to keep my own distance, my own counsel. I know he doesn’t like it, but when there aren’t many ways to avoid someone inside less than an acre, aloofness is about the only option. Maybe it’s because we’ve stolen enough of Jupiter’s velocity that it feels like we’re sprinting now instead of jogging, and I’m finding it harder to catch my breath. Maybe it’s because we’re that much nearer the end of the mission. Home looms larger, is ominously closer.
“Don’t you have anything else you should be doing?”
Mas shrugs. “I’m running fuel calculations. Orbital mechanics simulations. Same as I do every other day.” He gives up trying to make me look at him, looks at the Skinner box instead.
“Tell me about the harder stuff then. What the fuck you’re doing here. Why the fuck you’re doing it.”
“I’m in here every day, and I don’t really have much of a clue about any of it, and”— when he rubs his palm down my back, he does catch my gaze, and keeps hold of it—“I’m interested.”
We’re running out of time, is what he really means. To learn—to know—all there is to learn and know about each other. It’s exactly why I shouldn’t tell him.
“You really want to know about this?”
“Sure.” He grins, holds up his hands. “Hey, look, I get that you’re the cognitive neuroscientist, and I’m just the guy in charge of the dilithium crystals. Use small words, and I’m sure I’ll pick it up.”
“Sorry.” I smile. “Okay. So, the first paradigm shift in AI—” I laugh when he grimaces in mock terror, and it feels strange, alien, like it’s the first time I’ve done it in a very long time. Maybe it is.
“The first paradigm shift in AI was designing deep learning architecture like neural networks. And the second was getting the neural network to design its own architectures without us.” I hit a key on the laptop to light up its screen. “So we now have a recurrent neural network, which is the controller; it proposes a new learning architecture for another neural network, the child network, to follow. The child network feeds back to the controller, which updates its decision-making process before delivering its next proposition. It’s basic behavioural psychology. Reinforcement learning: using feedback or reward for training purposes.
“Reduction cells mean that a much smaller dataset can be used to design larger datasets, but any further progress has ground to a halt for years—there wasn’t much anyone could do without large-scale cluster management.”
“Really fucking big computers. Faster chips.”
“And we don’t have them?”
“Oh, someone does. Google, Nvidia, Intel, Graphcore, a whole bunch of folk. Probably even Astro. Just not me. I’ve got a laptop and a Skinner box.”
Mas moves closer. When his fingers brush against mine, I don’t move away. He peers into the Skinner box.
“So these guys—”
“Right, the nanites. They’re the kids?”
“The child network, right.”
“Bots are just automated programs. They mostly replicate what we can already do, so we don’t have to do it.” I look at the pull of his shirt between his broad shoulders and only just manage not to press my palm against it. “Conventional bots are ones and zeros. Nanites are built from DNA.”
He turns. “That’s Don’s field.”
I step back. “Among other things.”
“And this neural network allows them to learn?”
“Sure. It’s the closest learning architecture to biological neural networks in humans. When you’re a baby, different regions of the brain connect to each other in a specific sequence, layer by layer, until the whole brain is mature. Deep learning neural networks do the same thing. It means the nanites can get progressively cleverer without task-specific programming.”
“To do what?”
I shrug. “We’re already using nanotechnology as the silver bullet to fight cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. We can program a swarm to find, target, and kill diseased cells. We’re starting to use scout swarms to identify them before they become diseased cells. But we could do so much more than that. We could link human brains to the cloud via nanites made of AI programs and DNA strands. We could stop ageing, stop illness, expand our neocortex ten thousand–fold.”
He gives me the crooked grin again. “But?”
“The best we’ve managed so far are kludges.”
“What the fuck are kludges?”
“Workarounds. Clumsy, difficult to extend, impossible to maintain. The AI isn’t good enough yet. Hardware or software. Bio-evolution requires one-shot learning. Means no more massive, data-heavy learning algorithms, no more cluster analysis, no more us. An unsupervised machine learning model with a continuously learning AI program. When someone works out how to do that, that’ll be the singularity. Transhumanism.”
“Transhumanism? All sounds a bit fucking Skynet to me.”
I smile. Pretend that I don’t feel sad and bad. Pretend that my goose bumps are only because of the press of his weight behind me, the stroke of his fingers against my skin, and not because he’s the first person to listen to me, to give any kind of shit about what I have to say, about what I think, since Boris. “That’s the plan.”
“That’s what you’re trying to do?”
“With a laptop and an old-school Skinner box?” I shake my head, dilute my sarcasm with a smile. “I’m more interested in the small stuff, the stuff that they always miss, don’t want to sweat; the whole Martians-being-killed-off-by-the-common-cold shtick. Faults, glitches, potential bugs. AI interfaces can be hacked, but I want to know if you can interrupt the deep learning sequence. If you can change it, corrupt it.” I look back into the Skinner box. “I want to know if you can do it through behavioural manipulation and conditional stimuli.”
“And you can?”
I turn around, look at his eyes, the wide bridge of his nose, his lips, his teeth, his jawline. It’s a question he’s certain I will know the answer to. If not today, then one day. It makes my face grow hot. It makes my heart beat faster. It makes me want him to touch me. Even though I don’t want him to touch me. Even though I know he will anyway.
His palm moves against my face, his fingers push through my hair. “How was he last night?”
He presses his mouth to my temple, my cheekbone, that nearly gone bruise. “Fine is good.” He kisses me once, twice, the third time long enough that he and it are finally all that exist.
“When do I get my reward?” he whispers.
I can feel his teeth against my skin. “For being in love with you.”
I want to feel it, to bask in it, but I can’t. I won’t. Because we’re sprinting now. We’re nearly home.
“We can’t keep doing this, Mas. I can’t.”
Even though I am doing this: one hand rubbing him through his trousers; the other yanking free his shirt, skating over the big smooth expanse of his back. My mouth as hungry as his, my breath as fast and loud.
“We can.” He lifts me up, presses me hard against that black wall, reaches between us. “We can do whatever we like.”
Heat, heartbeat, clean grass, and coffee.
And it doesn’t matter that I’m here again, doing everything I said I couldn’t—wouldn’t—do again, because I know what happens. What always happens.
“Free will is an illusion,” I whisper.
“Free will is an illusion in a fucking Skinner box, Evie,” he says. “That’s all.”
The nanites have proven even less susceptible to torture than reward. I should be glad because it means I can stop, but I’m not. They’re too impervious. Too untouchable. Unreachable. And today, I’m angry. Once you become a test subject, an experiment, you stay one forever. Only in death can you cease to be of use, and even that’s no guarantee. Any animal or bird inside a Skinner box gets that eventually; resigns itself to the fate that’s already theirs. But nanites don’t understand that—won’t understand that—no matter what I do or don’t do. I don’t like the unpredictability of people. Of neocortexes. But I hate the predictability of nanites. The incorruptibility.
He comes into the bathroom as I’m brushing my teeth. As I bend over to spit, he slams my forehead hard against the sink’s steel surround. Roll not straight edge, of course, which is some blessing. It hurts more, but Don can see less. Is rewarded with less. The skin isn’t broken. I don’t bleed for him.
When he grabs hold of my hair, his breath spits against my neck, my cheek. “Boris was your fault. You were the one who fucked up last time. You fuck up again, Evie, and Astro are done with us.”
He pulls me back onto my feet. I’m shaking, numb. He tries to smile, but can’t quite manage it. I get a half-arsed snarling flash of teeth instead.
“I’m watching you. We’re running out of time. You want to keep your pretty boy toy, you don’t fuck up again.”
It’s called workfunction: the energy required to remove electrons from solid to vacuum. To leave behind an empty space ripe for fantasies. I leave without getting dressed. I could sleep in the Nostromo, on its hard plastic couches or at its hard plastic table, but I go to Mas’s quarters instead. Because I’m stupid. Because I go on believing that I’m worth being saved. That I’m not some kind of sad and bad metaphor for a life. Osmium has the highest workfunction of all the elements, because it’s hard and brittle. It’s the densest naturally occurring element of them all.
He’s awake. Naked. He wraps me in him, as if he can undo what’s been done. Maybe he can. If I let him. He lays me alongside him, strokes around and away from what hurts, and I don’t tell him that makes it hurt more.
“I’m going to kill him this time.”
“No, you’re not.”
He sits up, covers me in his shadow. “You think you can stop me?”
I press my fingers into the skin of his chest, hard enough to leave satisfying marks. “What do you think will happen if you storm in there and try to kill him?”
“I’m going to kill him.”
“Mas.” I sit up. Wince. “We’re not exactly surrounded by any other six-foot-four brick shithouses. You beat him up, you kill him, who do you think they’ll blame?”
He doesn’t smile. “You think I give a fuck what Astro might or might not do weeks, months down the fucking line? Do you think I’m so worried for my own damn self that I’ll just let him go on hurting you?”
We’re doing a lot of thinking, I think. Except, of course, we’re not. Not even close.
“You’re not going to do it.”
“You’re telling me not to do it?”
“I told you the last time, and the time before that, and I’m telling you now. No. We have to do it my way.” I close my eyes so I don’t have to look at his. Brown like soil after rain, red threads through the white. “Unless you’re just like him, and what I say—what I fucking think—doesn’t matter to you.”
“Hey, hey.” He grabs for me as I roll off the bunk. And only lets go when I make a sound like he’s hurting me. “Evie.”
I turn around when I’m sure I can. When I’m sure that I won’t change my mind.
He gets up. Stands in front of me—all the big and dark shadows and planes of him—and even though it’s me that sways towards him, I’m the one who says, “Don’t touch me.”
“Leave me alone.”
And I end up at the plastic table in the Nostromo after all.
“I’m sorry,” Mas says, taking the coffee mug back out of my hands. “I’m sorry, okay? We’ll do it your way. Whatever you want. Okay?”
I touch the pulse at his neck. I smooth the frown lines across his forehead, around his mouth.
“Don’t shut me out,” he says against my skin. “Don’t shut me out.”
“I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
I get down on my knees, and I take his cock into my mouth, and he protests only long enough for me to hear it, to acknowledge that he does.
And I swallow all of him: his cries and breaths and eager ecstasy. I am always hungrier for him than I ever want to admit. To acknowledge.
Afterwards, I sprawl across his lap and stroke his skin, laughing as he shivers, pretends he can stand it.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says, pushing his fingers between mine. “I can reroute the filtration system. Rewire the circuits in the living quarters, the labs.”
I tense. Try to extricate myself enough to sit up. “No.”
“It would be easy. Quick.”
“It’s safer, Evie.” His fingers wind tighter. “Safer than what you want to do.”
I look up at him. Swallow. Relax. “Okay.”
“Okay?” He blinks.
“Okay. You’re right. The lab’s full of too many variables, too many unknowns. Unstable chemicals, gases, fuck knows what. Your idea is better.”
“I can still make it look like an accident.”
“Okay.” I smile, reach up to kiss him, to put my arms around him so that he’ll put his around me. “But you have to be sure,” I whisper against his cooling skin. “I need you to be sure.”
“Christ,” he says, and his laughter is low, short. “There’s no way you don’t know by now that I’d do anything for you. Anything.”
This time isn’t the same as the last time though. I’m good at lying, but lying to yourself is a dangerous habit to get into. One I have always tried to avoid. And the truth is that this time is different. This time, I’ve done less lying than anyone will ever know.
I should probably feel guilty. But I don’t. In the same way that torturing nanites shouldn’t make me feel guilty. But it does.
Guilt is repression. Learned oppression. As constructed, as engineered, as a Skinner box. And shame is misogyny. All those times he mocked me, hit me, raped me, he should have been the one unable to look at himself in the mirror afterwards.
The definition of guilt is the compromising of one’s own standards of conduct and the violating of universal moral standards. It’s bearing responsibility for those compromises, those violations. And its positive reinforcement is remorse.
I will feel no remorse over the murder of my husband. And I will feel no guilt.
I wait until he’s been asleep for at least two hours. I count them second by second by second. But still, the moment I ease myself out of the bed, he stirs and opens one eye. Gives me that snidely dismissive grin.
“You got that jungle fever again, baby?”
I nearly don’t answer him. “I need to check on the Skinner box.”
He sits up, and my throat gets tight. “Reaching its climax, is it?” He grins wider. Winks. “Your experiment.”
I don’t answer. I don’t even breathe in again until I feel the grass under my feet.
I don’t go to my module, to the Skinner box. I don’t go to Mas. Instead, I go back to Boris’s door, key in its old and unchanged code.
It feels strange and it feels familiar. The tightness in my throat gets tighter. I turn the lights on low and silver cool, listen to the clunk and hum of the air filtration system as it switches back on.
He’s still here. Lying naked and flat on his back, on his bunk, his arms by his sides, palms open. His legs long and straight, feet dangling off the bunk’s end. His face calm and relaxed as if he’s asleep: long lashes and high cheekbones, straight solemn mouth. His hair short and white-blond. I can still remember how it felt under my fingers. Sharp and soft.
I have no idea why he is still here. Even though I realise now that I always imagined he was. Always imagined he would be. Perhaps that’s why this is the first time I’ve come back here.
Why haven’t they studied him, taken him apart? Why haven’t they used him for research or spares? It’s a cruelty, of course. It has to be. Even if it’s just one of callous indifference. And I’ll never know. That’s the worst part. I’ll never, ever know why. And neither will he.
I reach for his hand. It’s neither warm nor cold. Its weight is heavy. Inert.
“I’m sorry, Boris. I’m sorry.”
I think of us playing chess in the Nostromo, his long limbs folded underneath him, my feet up on the table. His shy grin when he moved his queen. “Checkmate.”
“What?” My laugh annoyed, because I’ve never managed to lose anything gracefully. “How the hell did you do that?”
A shrug, a shake of his head.
“I call bullshit.” I poured the last of the wine into my glass. “What fucking skill level are you set to? Magnus Carlsen?”
He smiled. “You’re distracted. You would have beaten me last week.” He watched me. “And you’re drinking too much.”
“Ah,” I said, drinking some more. “My mistake. You’re actually set to Mum.”
When we heard Don coming out of his lab, we both froze, shut up, until we heard him punching in the entry code to his and my quarters.
“I’m sorry I was such a shit to you last week,” I said. “It wasn’t you I was fucked off with.”
And he gave me the look that I’ve come to associate only with those last bad days. I have nightmares about that look. “I know.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I’m just scared, Boris. I’m just nervous. Do you get nervous? Do you get scared?”
“Sure. Of course. You know I can.”
“I know you can. I just don’t know if you do.”
And he smiled. Just enough to wrinkle the tiny lines around his eyes. Blue and clear. “I do. I am.”
And I reached across the chessboard, put my hand on top of his hand—neither warm nor cold—and squeezed.
We spent the day before the night going over the plan so exhaustively that it left little room for nerves, for being scared. Or so I thought. But when it came time for me to lock myself in my module, I found myself hesitating too long.
“You’re not supposed to be able to kill someone.”
He smiled. “That’s science fiction.”
“I know.” I closed my eyes. “But why are you doing it?”
“Because I have to do what I’m told to do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Because I have to do what you tell me to do.”
“I love you.” And it wasn’t a lie. But it was also conditioned stimulus. There are lies, and there are lies.
His smile was pure Boris: quick, short, shy. “I can do it. I want to do it.”
And maybe he was lying. And maybe he wasn’t. It was always going to be a long shot, I’d known that from the start.
Or maybe he really did believe that he could. But instead, he committed digital hara-kiri. He came into this room and lay down on this bunk and disembowelled his algorithms, his IPUs and TPUs, his motor functions.
Boris was never just an automated program. Something to replicate what we can already do. A soft tissue composite over aluminium bones and silicone chips. He was never, ever only ones and zeros.
He trusted me. And I let him down.
I’m a scientist. I’m supposed to look at problems clinically, rationally, dispassionately. The most powerful of all scientific obstacles is an unconscious sense of guilt. I used to think the hole left behind by those escaped electrons was that obstacle. Where terrible fantasies breathed and grew and wanted. But it never was. Those fantasies have allowed me more freedom, more possibility, than a lifetime of research or conditioning. They have allowed me to plan my husband’s death. To be certain of it. But if the definition of guilt is bearing responsibility for my own compromises and violations, then I should feel guilty about fucking it up. Allowing it to be fucked up. And I should feel even guiltier for allowing this to happen to Boris. For carrying on even after it did. As if I didn’t.
My heart is beating fast again. My fingers and skin tingle. I want to run. I want to do. Instead, I lean over him, press my fingers to his cheek as I kiss his cool, smooth forehead.
“Thank you for trying,” I whisper. “Thank you for wanting to try.”
When Mas tries the door to my module, he finds it locked. He knocks once, low and quick. And I close my eyes until I hear him go. Until I’m sure he’s gone.
I look down into the Skinner box. I look up at the black wall behind it.
I know now how you punish a nanite. You don’t inflict damage. You don’t destroy. You just threaten to take away what they have. What you’ve allowed them to have. Every little thing that you’ve ever given them. And then they are as fragile, as corruptible, as the rest of us.
But I don’t feel glad to know it. I don’t feel vindicated. I don’t feel triumphant. I only barely resist saying sorry to them too.
I don’t choose the same location, the same time. That would feel too much like a bad omen, I suppose, even though I don’t believe in them.
I tell Mas we have to wait until we’re zero point one two AU from Mars. Zero point six five from Earth. Sixty point four five million miles from home. Zero point zero nine light-hours. Five point four light-minutes. Four weeks. And one day.
I go to my module, stare at the nanite data without seeing it, without reading it. Wait until I hear Don going into the path lab. Wait some more.
When I knock on the door to Mas’s quarters, he opens it as if he’s been standing right on the other side. Perhaps he has been. His face is relaxed, his expression blank, but he can’t hide what’s inside his eyes.
Do you get nervous? Do you get scared?
I think of Boris’s eyes. Blue and clear. I do. I am.
“Okay. Are you sure you—”
“I’m sure, Evie.”
“And it’s all set?”
He’s impatient. His fingers are twitching to push me aside. Whether it’s because he can’t wait to murder Don or because his resolve is finite shouldn’t matter. But, of course, it does.
“Tell me why.”
“What? Evie, we don’t have time for this. If I don’t open the filtration tank now I’ll miss the window. Go back to your module, like we decided. Lock yourself in, and use the mask just in case, okay?” He grabs hold of my hands. His are icy cold. “Go. Go now!”
“Tell me why you’re doing this.”
He blinks. His impatience stalls. Softens. “Because he hurts you. Because I love you.”
I let go of his hands. Put my arms around his neck and push my body hard against his. “Because it’s what I want?”
“Because it’s what you want.”
I wait until he relaxes enough to put his hands around my waist. “I’m sorry.” And then I push him with everything I’ve got. When he stumbles, I step back into the bubbling corridor, hit the Close Door button.
Boris taught me how to reprogram the codes; it was laughably easy. Too easy. By the time Mas has recovered enough to try and open the door again, he can’t.
He looks at me through the small plexiglass window. He’s shouting, shaking his head. Now, he looks nervous. Now, he looks scared.
But he shouldn’t.
All I can see are the red threads of blood in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say again.
Because I am.
Don is bent over the largest of his anaerobic chambers, the one directly underneath the main carbon air filter and fan. I watch his back, the stillness of his absorption. He has always found microorganisms better companions than anything—anyone—two hundred thousand times bigger.
I clear my throat, and he spins around, wrenching his hands out of the gloves. He visibly relaxes when he sees it’s me, but his frown is quick to return when he sees the two tumblers of whisky.
“It’s not time yet.”
I don’t reply. Walk through the brilliantly glaring white. Hold his tumbler out until he takes it.
He looks down at it and then up at me. “He said no.” His lips twitch and his eyes gleam. “He fucking said no.”
I don’t reply. I swallow my whisky in one. The burn takes away some of his sting.
“I must admit I thought you had it in the bag, Evie.” He’s crowing, even though my failure would be bad news for us both. Probably the end of these missions, of Astro’s interest in us.
He lifts his tumbler, throws back the whisky the same way as I did. And I see that he is mad. Fury rages in his eyes, his grin. He just can’t help crowing too. “Guess a real man is beyond your skill set after all.”
And it’s not exactly shame that I feel. Not the same shame, at least, that I’ve been feeling for years. Nor is it failure. It’s a kind of horrified wonder. A wonder that I was ever able to do it. To keep doing it.
With Boris, it had been interest, friendship, love. Disinterest, abandonment, stripping his OS of the things he had learned and earned. With Mas it had been no different. Except for the sex. Pleasure and its withdrawal is the most effective reward and punishment model of them all. A Skinner box doesn’t have to be a torture chamber. Not unless you’ve exhausted its every other function.
Boris knew and Mas didn’t. That’s the real difference. Boris knew that enough unconditioned stimuli had made pressing that operandum lever become second nature. A conditioned response. And he knew that pressing that lever was the want, the desire—the need—to kill Don. And I’d put it there.
“I couldn’t do it,” I say. “He wanted to, he’d planned to. But I couldn’t let him.”
Don’s fury turns brighter. “Jesus Christ. The neuroscientist has fallen in love with her lab rat, is that it?”
When I don’t answer, he throws his empty tumbler across the lab. It shatters loud against the door. “You’d jeopardise all of this—our entire mission—for a good fuck?” He shakes his head. “It must be true what they say: white women love big black cock. Is that what—”
But there’s something behind his white-hot rage. Something cooler and darker that glitters and turns.
Fear subsumes unease. That something is something. And I don’t know what.
“All this time I’ve been saddled with you,” he says, “and I never realised what a fucking coward you are.”
It’s satisfaction. A satisfaction ordinarily reserved for the finding of new disease strains or more effective base carriers, antimicrobial agents. It’s hiding behind all that mocking fury, but it’s there. And it’s bigger. Much bigger.
“You’re such a fucking disappointment, Evie.”
And I’m running out of time to find out what that satisfaction means. What he thinks I have or haven’t done. Panic makes me reckless, foolish. Even before I rush him, I already know he’s going to go for the Taser StrikeLight that he would have used on Mas instead.
It feels cold and surprisingly painful against my ribs. But I’m close enough now that I can lean into his shoulder, whisper into his ear: “What is it? What are you hiding from me? Tell me.”
“Please, Don. Please.”
And maybe he hears something in my voice. More probably, he senses that something cooler and darker that glitters and turns behind my rage. It has, after all, been there a lot longer.
“Evie. What have you done?”
Or maybe he just starts to feel the pain.
He suddenly jackknifes, doubles over enough that he pushes me backwards. He grunts, coughs, goes down onto his knees, clutching his stomach.
“Don. What is it? What are you hiding? You fucking bastard. Tell me!”
“What the—” He blinks up at me. Tries to glare. Tries to snarl. Tries to grab. To catch. To hold. “What the fuck have you done to me?”
But I don’t have to tell him. He already knows. I wonder if he can feel the nanites eating their way out through his oesophagus, his stomach. Corrupted, conditioned, hungry for a disease that isn’t there.
“Turn them off! I know you can. Ev—” He lets out a scream: thin and wheezed through gritted teeth. I can hear them grinding. He spasms, coughs. His blood sprays through the white, glaring space, spatters against the white gloss tiles.
Still on his hands and knees, he brings up the Taser gun, points it at my face, my chest. And I wonder if he’ll kill me.
I see the moment that he realises I will kill him. I am killing him. His face goes grey, except for two spots of pink high on his cheekbones. And I can read every emotion that passes through his eyes. Surprise, fear, incredulity. Maybe even admiration. A whisper of apologies drifting around me like spring blossoms, cool and white. Hydrangeas and pearl beads in my hair.
And he knows, he knows—there’s no turning back now, if there ever was. But still he tries. “You don’t want this!” His voice hoarse and entirely changed; his blood slowing, thickening. “Please . . . make it stop! Do it! You can do it. Please!”
I make myself stay. I make myself wait. I make myself look at him.
The gun weaves drunkenly. Don lets out a howl, followed by a darker arc of blood that misses me by inches. Then, and only then, do the nanites finally deliver their payload. Enough ketamine to kill a dozen men.
He slumps face-first onto the tiles. His glasses crack. His booties squeak.
“Free will is an illusion,” I say into the quiet, and my voice shakes so badly I almost bite my tongue, “in a Skinner box.”
I wake up on a plastic bench in the Nostromo. My first thought isn’t for Don, it’s for Mas. Still locked inside his quarters.
It’s only when I get up and start for the door that I register I’m not alone.
He’s sitting on the bench opposite, one leg crossed over the other. He looks like all the other Astro suits: tall, slim, mildly interested.
“Where did you come from?”
He smiles indulgently. “I’ve been here all the time, Evie.”
I think of the long corridors lined with bubbling tubes of algae and tanks of recycling water. All those locked white doors. “I don’t understand.”
He shrugs, as if this is of no matter. When the silence between us stretches thin enough to break, I clear my throat. “Is he dead? Is Don—”
This earns me a chuckle. “Yeah, he’s dead.”
“I’m sorry.” Even though I’m not.
“Evie.” He gives me another of those patronising smiles.
“I couldn’t let you do it. I couldn’t let you destroy Mas the way you did Boris.”
“Why not?” I want to punch the lazy smirk off his face. I want to pour a cocktail of nanites down his throat. “Because Boris was bad enough—wrong enough—and Mas . . . Mas isn’t a fucking robot!”
I suffer a bad image of this bloody man—who I already know will never, ever tell me his name—sitting inside one of those locked white rooms, watching Mas and me fucking on a screen, and I can’t bear it. I can’t bear any of it. I feel more lightheaded, more sick, than I did while I was watching Don die.
“What difference does it fucking make anyway? He was going to do it. He had agreed to do it.”
“But he didn’t actually do it.”
“He wouldn’t have been allowed to actually do it, you prick.”
A shrug. “Semantics.”
“Okay,” I say, pretending to back down, because it’s the only course of action that will have any kind of effect. Astro suits really are predictable, unreachable. Impervious. “I fucked up. I allowed myself to become involved, prejudiced. But he would have done it, and you know it.” I sit again, press my palms against my cheeks, my stinging eyelids. “Just let me out of contract. I’m not the right person for this job. I’m not. I’ll just keep fucking it up.”
“Is that a threat or a promise, Evie?”
I shake my head. I’m not sure.
“You volunteered for this,” he says, in that maddeningly impenetrable voice.
“I know that! But Boris and Mas aren’t simulations, for fuck’s sake. They aren’t rats. I thought I could do it. I thought it would be the same. But it wasn’t. It isn’t.” I stand up. My face is burning hot. I’m clenching my hands in and out of fists. I’m making it too easy for him. “Where’s Mas? This isn’t his fault.”
“Obviously it’s not his fault.” He looks up at me, shrugs. “He’s fine. He’s being debriefed. He’ll be paid off, given the usual spiel, and then sent on his way.”
I know this is a lie. They might well do all those things, but he’ll never truly be let go. After all, once you become a test subject, an experiment, you stay one forever.
I try to shrug back. Strive for the same cool calm. It used to be easier. “Whether he did it or not, the hypothesis is validated. Mas would have committed murder as a direct result of conditioned stimuli; Boris did not.”
Another shrug. “All variables in any experiment must be controlled.”
“For God’s sake! I fucked up at the end. At the end! Don was—Don was . . .” And it suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t once thought about what happens to me now. What they will do about what I have done. “I can’t do this again,” I say, having decided upon that being the worst punishment of all. “I won’t do this again.”
“Evie,” he says. “Don signed up for this, signed the same disclaimers you did. What happened was unfortunate”—another shrug—“but these things do happen.” He stands up, smooths his palms down his trouser legs. “In any case, you’re mostly right. The hypothesis is validated. And now we are left in a bit of a quandary.”
“What do you mean?”
“If the hypothesis was which is more suitable, more adaptable as a companion, a colleague to long-haul interplanetary—and perhaps one day, interstellar—travel, which then has proved preferable? A morally incorruptible robot that will irreversibly shut down to avoid doing harm? Or an eminently corruptible human being who will agree to commit murder for pussy?” He smiles, and I am suddenly—inexplicably—frightened.
“I know what the fucking hypothesis—”
Two shrugs. Short and quick. “Or for cock?”
“What?” I go cold. I can feel it run straight down through me like a shiver. A river.
“You don’t need to worry, Evie,” he says, closing the distance between us and patting my arm. “In this experiment, all the variables were very well controlled.”
I think of Don. Of that something cool and dark glittering and turning behind his white-hot rage. I step back out of the suit’s reach. “What do you mean?”
“Your loyalty to Masego is admirable. But it’s somewhat misguided.”
I decide to stop speaking.
“He’s not an engineer. He’s barely in the fiftieth percentile. You know, I’m surprised, with that big IQ of yours, that you never worked that out. Although,” he flicks something I can’t see off his trousers, “I guess he kept you otherwise occupied.”
“What the fuck. Do. You. Mean?”
He sighs. “The experiment. The hypothesis. Who needs an engineer? Who cares about an engineer? A computer could do what Masego was capable of doing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do.”
And I do. I close my eyes. Think of Don’s violence, his cruelties. Boris’s friendship, Mas’s comfort. Don’s hate. Their love. Don’s moments of agonising kindness. Boris’s periodic withdrawal. Mas’s occasional anger, more frequent disappointment.
“I’m the experiment. I’m the subject.”
Another sigh, this one less patient. “You’re the hypothesis.” He tilts his head. “Can a cognitive neuroscientist be fooled? Can an expert in the field of deep learning and AI evolution be unknowingly coerced? Can a genius be corrupted? Can a manipulator be manipulated?”
“No. No.” And I’m shaking my head. Not because I can’t be, not because I haven’t been. But because I never even suspected. I trusted all of them. Even my husband. And it’s so obvious now. So simple. Like a rat in a cage. Pressing a lever when a light goes green. Positive and negative conditioning. Reward and punishment. Want, desire, fear, loathing, pleasure. And their response, their conditioned stimulus, was never the murder of Don. The lever that I pushed was killing him to save someone else.
“Sit down, Evie.”
I know he’ll wait until I do. So I do. My legs are shaking too hard not to. “I spared Mas,” I say. When I’m sure I can. “I didn’t—I wouldn’t have—spared Boris.”
He sits down opposite me, shows me his open palms. Smiles. Smiles. “And there you have it. The quandary. We want, we need, invaluable scientists like you on our spaceships. But these experiments prove time and time again that human on human doesn’t work in these environments, not for any significant length of time—certainly not the time it would require to travel beyond our own system. And neither—albeit in very different ways—does robot and human.” He blinks, recrosses his legs. “So, given these outcomes, what would you suggest Astro’s next hypothesis should be?”
I’m angry. I’m hurt and I’m fucking furious. But most of all, I’m horrified. Suddenly. Horrified that inside the space of one solar system—eight point four AU, seven hundred and eighty-one million miles, one point one six light-hours, sixty-nine point six light-minutes—I’ve become a murderer. Inside the space of twelve months. One year. And whether it was because I was manipulated or conditioned; whether it was for me or for Mas doesn’t matter. I did it. And until now, I didn’t even care that I’d done it.
“Come on, Evie.” The Astro suit’s stubborn smile slips. “Earn the investment that we’ve made in you.”
I want to snarl at him. It’s in my chest, my neck, the muscles around my mouth. “Do you want me to answer personally or scientifically?”
“Fine.” I feel cold, restless. Tense like a bowstring. “I wouldn’t put fucking people on spaceships at all.”
He doesn’t do what I thought he’d do. He grins with every one of his teeth. He actually looks excited, which is terrifying. “Bingo.”
I look at him. And I look at him. And that cold burns right out of me until I’m shaking and sweating so hard I can’t see. “No.”
I stand up. My knees are shaking. My hands are squeezing in and out of tighter fists. “I didn’t volunteer for this, did I?”
“No.” Another grin. “You didn’t.”
“No.” My voice is thin, high, alien. “No.”
“I wasn’t permitted to tell you,” he says, pressing his lips together in what I think is meant to be an expression of sympathy.
“What am I?”
He smiles. Like a bird. A magpie. “You were made in a lab, Evie. You’re the first of your kind.”
“What am I?”
“You know what you are.”
I have ego. I have agency and independent thought. I feel pain, and I feel guilt, and I feel remorse. I remember my wedding. I remember my first day of school. I remember my mother.
“What am I?”
He’s no longer even pretending to smile. “Stop panicking. I don’t want to have to give you another shot.”
He restrains me easily, his breath fanning cool against my cheek until I make myself limp and he lets me go.
“Tell me what I am.”
“No. You tell me.”
I slump back onto the bench. I am me. My teeth chatter, my skin puckers. I am nervous. I am scared. I am an unsupervised machine learning model with a continuously learning AI program.
I am bio-evolution.
I am one-shot learning.
I am the singularity.
He laughs, short and sharp, as if I should be pleased. “You are transhuman.”
“Did Don know?” It’s a stupid and entirely pointless question. I already know the answer. Tremors shake through me like aftershocks.
“Of course he—”
“Was he like me? Is he—”
But he puts out my feeble little fire with a snort. “He was the bio-lead in designing and making you.”
You’re such a fucking disappointment, Evie.
“Did they all—” I realise that I’m crying only when I can no longer see or draw breath.
He reaches across the space between us, grabs for my arm again. “I will give you another shot, Evie.”
Of course they all knew. Of course they did. They are the controller and I am the child network. I remember what they have created for me. I feel what they have chosen for me. I have what they have given me. Through feeders and electrified floors and operandum levers. I do what they have decided I should do.
Free will is an illusion after all.
“I know this is a shock. But you can withstand a lot worse.”
I try to swallow. I probably have a spec. A manual. A troubleshooting intranet page.
“Now, you shouldn’t have killed him. You were programmed to resist the stimuli. But this time you didn’t. And that is a problem.” He shrugs again as if we’re discussing rising damp. “But, again, not an insurmountable one.”
I stare across at him. At the long fingers he dangles between his legs, the purple of the veins at his wrists. The smile, smile, smile that never reaches the grey of his eyes.
“A few more tweaks yet, Evie. Seems you’re not as incorruptible as we’d hoped.”
I’m breathing loud through my nose like a bull. When I get up again, he gets up again. When I look at the Nostromo’s exit, he looks at it too. When I frown, he smiles.
“You are free to go, Evie.”
I run without being sure that I can. Past the living quarters, the bunk rooms, the labs, the stairs down to Engineering. My module and the Skinner box. I don’t look at any of them any more than I do all those faceless locked white doors.
At the airlock, I stop. Key in my code over and over again until he comes up alongside me, smile intact.
“Not quite yet,” he says. “Six minutes to landing.”
And it only then occurs to me that I must have lain on that bloody plastic bench for twenty-nine days.
I lean against the nanotube wall, count my breaths and listen to the fast streams and hot springs. Sink down onto the grass when my knees finally give out. Wait.
When I hear the exterior hiss and exhale of depressurisation, I scramble back onto my feet. Watch for the entry pad to turn green.
When it does, I key in my numbers again, step back as the mechanisms start vibrating, clunking, turning. “I want to see Mas.”
Smile. Shrug. “You won’t be seeing him again.”
I have never, ever managed to lose anything gracefully.
A breath of air. Its whisper. Promise.
He looks at me, squeezes my shoulders hard. “We’ll call you when we need you again. You behave, and we’ll set you up with the man—or woman—of your dreams next time.”
And then I really do want to pour a cocktail of nanites down his throat.
Instead, I push open the airlock.
Climb up out of my Skinner box.
I feel him watch me go. When I turn back around, he winks at me, reaches up for the hatch.
“See you next simulation, Evie.”
And then I’m just standing in the middle of a desert of petrified wood and badlands. Cliffs and canyons of sandstone and limestone, painted with grey- and red-coloured bands like Jupiter’s angry atmosphere. Alone.
It’s less of an oasis than a truck stop with no trucks. Except those that once a month restock the shitty little shack-shop with Coca-Cola and curly fries; the even shittier little lean-to bar with bad beer and peanuts.
The white barman has dreads and a Che Guevara T-shirt. He always listens to terrible reggae. An Astro suit perches on a barstool, drinks tomato juice, and does a bad job of pretending not to look at me. There is another, I know, inside the shop, pretending to shoot the shit with the till guy, who has no till. No bloody customers. I have been here so many times, and yet it never feels familiar. Never feels like a respite from either before or after.
I shift in my seat, trace the cool beads of sweat at the neck of my bottle of bad beer. I look at my watch. The SUV will come in another two hours. Will take me to a crap hotel in Tucson, where I will spend hours, days, weeks pretending to have fun. Shopping, swimming, shagging. Telling myself that the minute I think of somewhere else—somewhere better—to go, I’ll go.
When Mas yanks back the wicker chair opposite me and sits down, the Astro suit practically falls off his stool.
“Are you okay?”
“What?” I seize inside like a clock’s movement locking up: its wheels and pinion gears wound so tight it cannot move, cannot function. I try to stand up, my boots scrabbling for purchase on the hot rocky ground. “You’re not . . . What the fuck are you doing here? . . . I don’t—”
When he reaches for me with his big hands, I rear back, knock over my beer bottle. Watch it spin and fizz, because it’s something to look at other than him.
“They told you.” His voice is flat.
And of course, I want to say, Why didn’t you tell me? too badly to say anything at all.
“How could I tell you?” he says. And his eyes are so clear. “Baby, how could I tell you?”
And maybe they are valid questions. I don’t know any more.
“Evie,” he says, and moves just enough that he gives me momentary respite from the bright dry sun, places his cool hands over mine.
I’m no one’s baby. I’m not even anyone’s Evie. I’m like those nanites chasing through Don on a corrupted, manipulated program. I probably don’t even have a name. I’m probably a number. Just like a prisoner. A killer.
“I’m a fucking cyborg.”
“Jesus Christ.” He gets up, comes around the table, lifts me out of my chair like I’m a bag of groceries, and I’m too busy grabbing hold of him, too busy pressing every part of me against him to care. To think.
He holds me as I cry, as I choke, as I retch, as I forget and then remember how to breathe. He rubs my back, he kisses my hair, whispers apologies that aren’t cool and white like spring blossoms, but hot and fierce and furious like a funnelled vortex of fire and wind.
“Here,” he whispers, when my grief finally runs out of fuel. I feel the sharp cool press of something metal against my palm. “Take this and go as far and as fast as you can.”
I go still. I become calm. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. Press my face against his neck. Smooth my free hand against his scalp, his big shoulder.
“It’s a tracker,” he says against my skin.
I don’t doubt for a minute that I already have a tracker, embedded so deep in my code that I will never recognise it. But this. This is something I can throw away. This is something that at any time I can choose to throw away. Or keep.
Maybe it’s just more conditioned stimuli. Because you threaten to take away what they have. What you’ve allowed them to have. What you’ve given them. And they have to know that he is what I want. They have to know that he is the man of my dreams.
But I am unbalanced. I have no electrons left. Only empty space and fantasies. Where nothing that was once me lives. They probably don’t know that. I’m not hard and brittle like osmium. I am not impervious. Untouchable. Unreachable. I have never been satisfied with what they have allowed me to have. What they have given me. And I am not predictable. I didn’t do what they had hypothesised I would do.
“There’s a Hummer half a mile northwest,” Mas says. “The keys are in the ignition. Go. Now.”
“I can’t. We can’t.”
“We can.” His smile is brilliant. “We can do whatever we like.”
And it’s not the Astro suit at the bar, now speaking frantically into a satellite phone, that finally convinces me, it’s remembering that any animal or bird inside a Skinner box eventually resigns itself to the fate that’s already theirs. Eventually understands that once you become a test subject, an experiment, you stay one forever. My mistake was believing that this was only a bad thing. Was only giving up. But the nanites knew better. They knew it was freedom. And they are my children. They are my child network.
I kiss him. I let him kiss me.
Heat, heartbeat, clean grass, and coffee.
“I’ll find you, Evie,” Mas whispers. He draws back from me, cups my face in his hands. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you. Remember?”
He is my reward. Because I have earned him. In so many ways, I have created him. He is my man.
“They’ll probably never stop,” I say.
“I know. But it doesn’t matter.” He still goes on smiling. And I see that he is nervous, I see that he is scared. And that it doesn’t matter. “The world is our Skinner box, Evie.”
I climb off his lap. The Astro suit climbs off his stool. Behind me, I can hear the creaking squeal of the shitty little shack-shop door.
Mas stands up, grins so wide all I can see is his teeth. “You go now. I’ll take care of them.” And he winks with those eyes the colour of soil after rain.
But I shake my head.
I want to wonder what’s behind locked doors. I want to open them. Freedom is only free will. That’s all it’s ever been.
“We’ll take care of them.”
And when I rip through the stitches in my suit’s sleeve, and pull out the tiny vial of nanites, I grin with all of my teeth too.
“Skinner Box” copyright © 2019 by Carole Johnstone.
Art copyright © 2019 by Adam Baines