3rd Prize Winner 2021 - The Weird Event by Francis Ridley
by Frances Ridley
As Lynn hurried through the revolving doors, Brubeck strode past. He looked at his watch. Perhaps this was unconscious. Perhaps not.
‘Morning Mike,’ she said, with fake cheerfulness.
‘Lynn. Report ready?’
‘Next on my list,’ Lynn replied brightly, but her voice shook.
She stopped by the Operations office, to check the latest overnight observations. Tess’s monitor showed a patch of lunar rock and sand. KIM-2 was busy, prospecting for minerals. The goal of the deep learning program was that the robot would be able to make some of its own decisions. There was a carefully calculated element of surprise about where she would go, and what she would do next. This was making the business side of the expedition nervous.
‘Hi Lynn, good to see you,’ said Tess. ‘Everything OK?’
‘Yeah, just bumped into Brubeck – literally. I nearly mowed him down shooting through the revolving doors. Pia didn’t want to get into the car seat this morning.’
Tess laughed. ‘Come to check up on your other baby?’
Tess ran her through the latest images and data. Lynn would never go to the Moon – it was a privilege only the super rich could access. But when she looked at it through the lens of KIM-2’s camera, she could almost believe that she was there, scanning the grey rocks, with the vastness of space above her.
It was hard not to think of KIM-2 as another child. Her development had mirrored Pia’s. They had both stretched out curious limbs to explore their world. In the same month, they had discovered their arms, their hands. They played with blocks, exploring the different ways they could manipulate their environment. Each of them had gobbled information in greedy handfuls, like Halloween treats. Both had been absorbing and assimilating data for four packed years.
Three months ago, KIM-2 was pronounced one of the most sophisticated AI robots ever developed, and was sent to the far side of the Moon.
Pia, it was generally agreed, was an ordinary, lively little girl. After weighing up various childcare options, Lynn sent her to an expensive nursery. She desperately needed the KIM-2 project to succeed. If it did, she could expect promotion, more money and further research opportunities. If it didn’t, she’d be out of a job.
‘It’s all going to plan,’ Lynn said. ‘I don’t know why I get so worried.’
‘You’ve put a lot into this project – everything,’ said Tess, sympathetically.
Although, really, it wasn’t. She couldn’t give it everything, because of Pia. Lynn wanted to be a wonderful mother and a ground-breaking researcher in AI. She was failing at both.
She walked over to the Research office and began to prepare for tomorrow’s board meeting. As usual, Brubeck had scheduled this for twenty minutes before she was due to fetch Pia from nursery. He knew this, and Lynn knew that she couldn’t challenge him. Brubeck liked to make her life difficult.
For the next few hours, the small, windowless room was quiet. Then, a message from Tess popped up.
Have you checked your monitor?
Lynn looked up.
The rocks and dust had disappeared. Instead, there was a breathtaking sweep of stars, so thick and bright that they seemed to run into one another. KIM-2 was looking into space.
This was not in the programming. KIM-2’s tasks were to map out terrain, and collect and analyse samples of rock for mining potential. KSA’s mission, proudly stated in all its marketing, was the exploration of space on behalf of human-kind in order to extract its resources and colonise its planets. Lynn often wondered if any other KSA employees felt uncomfortable with this agenda. If they did, they kept it to themselves.
The phone rang.
‘Lynn, what the hell is going on?’
‘Oh, Mike, yes. It’s probably just a weird event. I’ll help Tess run the diagnostics.’
‘Make it quick.’
Operations were running all the tests they could think of. From time to time, Lynn glanced at the monitor. There was no change to the image. It was as if the robot was hibernating – as she did during the long lunar nights – but with her camera-eye fully operational.
They worked on it all day, without a break. There was nothing to suggest there was a problem. KIM-2 was in the peak of health.
Puzzled and anxious, Lynn stared at the screen. She had no idea what to try next – and if she stayed any longer, she would be late for Pia.
‘I’m sorry Tess, I’ve got to go.’
‘Don’t worry. It’s an Operations issue.’
‘Yeah, but Mike won’t see it that way. I led the programming, don’t forget.’
‘Lynn, go! We’ll sort it. Bet you anything KIM-2 is back on task by tomorrow,’ said Tess.
In the lobby, Brubeck was lurking by Reception. Catching sight of Lynn, he stepped towards her.
‘Lynn – wait.’
‘Sorry Mike – I’m late for Pia,’ she called, slipping out into the street.
At the nursery, Pia ran towards her shaking a sheaf of papers so hard, Lynn felt a draught.
‘Look, Mummy, look!’
The drawings were all similar: a wobbly face in a circle, out of which grew stick-like arms and legs.
She looked down at Pia’s expectant face.
‘They’re lovely darling. Is it Granny?’
‘No! It’s Isabel, my friend,’ said Pia proudly. ‘She’s new.’
‘That’s great!’ Lynn hugged Pia, catching her scent of play dough and biscuits. Pia hadn’t made a particular friend at nursery, and often played on her own.
Lynn walked over to Pia’s teacher.
‘Excuse me, could you point out Isabel’s parents?’
Mr Khan looked puzzled. ‘There’s no Isabel in the class.’
‘Oh – are you sure? She’s new.’
‘Yes, I’m sure. We have an Imogen, and a Bella. But they started at the same time as Pia.’
Lynn looked down at Pia, confused.
‘Pia, did you mean Imogen or Bella?’
‘No Mummy. Isabel’s my friend. But only I can see her.’
Lynn felt her face grow hot.
‘I see, darling. Well, that’s fun.’ She bent to kiss the top of Pia’s head. As she straightened up, Mr Khan spoke again.
‘Don’t worry, Ms Sumner, Pia is fine. It’s not unusual for children of her age to have imaginary friends.’
‘No, no, I’m not worried, she always seems very happy.’
The following morning, Lynn went straight to Operations. Brubeck was staring at a monitor, his arms folded, two fingers drumming impatiently on his elbow.
384,000 kilometres away, on the far side of the Moon, KIM-2 was still star-gazing – but something had changed. A long, horizontal lozenge of light had appeared, with a round sphere of light attached to one end. It was hovering about two metres above the ground. Lynn shivered involuntarily. The apparition bore an uncanny resemblance to a supine human form.
‘Can you explain this?’ Mike snapped.
Lynn didn’t reply. Trembling, she sat down and looked closely at the image. Then she checked KIM-2’s most recent report.
‘Well,’ she murmured tentatively, ‘KIM-2 has classified it as…’
‘As what?’ Mike shouted. Lynn’s voice dropped even lower.
‘As “floating dead”.’
‘What the hell does that mean?’
‘I… well, I don’t know. KIM-2 hasn’t encountered the object before. The label could be the robot’s attempt to use existing data to describe something new. That’s actually very exciting – it’s proof the Research team’s code is working.’
‘Oh then in that case, I’m very pleased for you – congratulations,’ Mike said sarcastically. ‘Sadly, that still doesn’t tell us what the hell this thing is, or why KIM-2 is making friends with it.’
‘No, no, I understand. Sorry.’
‘The board meeting is at five.’
‘I’ll keep monitoring it.’
‘Don’t monitor it – fix it.’
Brubeck swung out of the room. Lynn put her head in her hands.
‘Don’t mind that bastard,’ Tess said. She placed a steaming cup of coffee by Lynn’s elbow.
‘No, no, I’m OK Tess. Thanks for this.’ Gratefully, she took a few sips. There hadn’t been time for breakfast that morning.
‘Any ideas?’ Lynn asked, as they gazed at the strange floating shape.
‘No, none. What would the word ‘dead’ even mean to a robot?’
‘Good point. Look, I’ll work with Tom and Jodie to check the data, perhaps find a possible source for the label.’
‘Thanks Lynn. I think we’ve run all the tests we can. But we could analyse the image, try to find some clues as to what KIM-2 is looking at.’
‘Sounds like a plan.’
As the day progressed, more lozenges of light appeared. Each one took on an even more spookily humanoid appearance. Something niggled at the edge of Lynn’s mind, just out of reach.
At four she went for something to eat. She’d been in the canteen ten minutes when her phone rang.
‘Where are you?’ Mike’s voice was harsh.
‘Having a break.’
‘Get back to your desk. This situation is critical.’
Stuffing her sandwich into her bag, she hurried back to the office. Ten minutes before the board meeting, the phone rang again. Her heart dropped like a rock. But it was Alice from PR:
‘Just a heads up, Lynn. The images have leaked, we don’t know how. They’re worrying it’ll go viral – alien invasion panic and so forth.’
‘Fantastic – that makes my day.’
‘I know – we’re doing our best to contain it – posting videos of scientists in reassuring white coats explaining weird events. But Brubeck is going to want answers.’
Just before five, Lynn walked slowly towards the boardroom
How had she ended up at KSA? The company wasn’t interested in her research. It was interested in profit. It wanted robots that could travel the long distances, carry out the hard work and survive the tough conditions that human employees could not. It didn’t want AI – it wanted slaves.
In the boardroom, people were talking loud and fast. Monitor screens around the room showed the apparitions, glowing so brightly Lynn wanted to shade her eyes. Brubeck walked in and the chatter trickled away.
The chair got through the preliminaries as quickly as possible. Brubeck was like a Doberman, straining at the end of its chain. The first item on the agenda was announced, and he leapt forward, teeth bared.
‘Lynn, what’s going on? This situation is out of control, and I hold you responsible. What is KIM-2 showing us? And why? These images are in the public domain now. We need explanations, and we need them fast.’
Lynn paused, then answered him in level tones:
‘OK, the short answer is we don’t know yet, it’s a developing situation. Operations have run tests, and have found nothing wrong with KIM-2 so far. No short circuits. No obvious errors in functionality. KIM-2 appears to be operating perfectly.’
‘KIM-2 is not carrying out the tasks it’s programmed for.’
‘Agreed, but that doesn’t necessarily signal a malfunction. As you know, the main aim of Research has been the development of greater autonomy.’
‘KSA’s main aim is to map terrain and prospect for mining.’
‘I know – the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Look, let’s move on to your next question: What is KIM-2 showing us? Well, what it isn’t showing us is what is actually there. The apparitions you see are superimposed on the image.’
‘You’re saying that KIM-2 is sending faulty pictures?’
‘That anticipates the next question: Why is KIM-2 showing us this? It’s possible the images are faulty – but as I said, there is no evidence of any malfunction in KIM-2.’
Lynn paused to take a sip of water. It was so quiet, the buzzing of a fly trapped between the blind and the window sounded like a pneumatic drill. Every pair of eyes in the room was trained on her and Brubeck, as if some kind of gladiatorial contest was taking place.
Brubeck leaned forward:
‘So, what you’re saying is, you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know what the images are, and you don’t know why KIM-2 is sending them.’
Lynn wondered what she would do if she lost her job. Across the table, Kofi Abraham, the Finance Director, gazed at her, his face unreadable. She had no chance. She might as well get it over with.
‘Yes, that’s about right,’ she said, quietly.
‘Well Lynn – that’s a shame. You’ve had two days to work on this. Perhaps if you arrived on time, perhaps if you didn’t continually disappear from your desk on breaks, perhaps if you did a bit of overtime occasionally, we might have some answers.’
People shuffled and lowered their eyes uneasily. Even Tess sat quiet, her face red.
Lynn looked at the clock. Did it really matter what she did next? If she left within ten minutes, she would be on time to collect Pia.
Wait! The niggle that had been bothering her slotted into place. It was a crazy notion – but what did she have to lose?
‘I don’t have answers, but I do have an idea. If you’re interested…’
‘Fire ahead,’ said Brubeck, leaning back, his eyes narrowed.
‘We’re all focussing on the apparitions. But this all started when KIM-2 looked up, instead of down.’
‘Well, what if that wasn’t a malfunction? What if KIM-2 made a decision to look up?’
‘What are you saying? That our robots just decide to do whatever the hell they like up there?’
Lynn ignored him. This was evidence of the next step – she was sure of it.
‘…and what if,’ she continued, ‘the apparition was something that KIM-2 purposefully created?’
There were murmurs of surprise and excitement. Lynn couldn’t stop:
‘What if KIM-2 recognised that the light of the stars made a design against the darkness? And what if it then decided to make its own design?’
‘This is ridiculous. Where’s your proof?’
‘There’s no proof, it’s just an idea, I told you. But let’s go with it for a minute. What if this apparition is, well, some sort of a doodle, or drawing?’
‘We haven’t invested billions of dollars in this robot and sent it into space to doodle.’
‘But don’t you see, that’s only the start. If this is true…’
‘Quite – if it’s true. Your science fiction scenarios do not solve our present crisis, Lynn. I want you to step down while we sort this mess out. Jodie, you’ll take control of the KIM-2 Development Team, as of tomorrow. Lynn, make sure you brief her before you go tonight.’
‘That’s not possible,’ said Lynn, standing up. ‘I have to fetch Pia from nursery.’
‘If you leave now, your job is on the line.’
‘Lynn!’ Tess cried. Lynn headed towards the door.
‘Wait,’ Kofi Abraham said. ‘I’ll walk with you.’
He turned to Brubeck.
‘Sorry Mike, I have a child at nursery, too, and it’s my turn to pick him up tonight. These meetings are inconsiderately scheduled, by the way. You need to address that.’
Lynn caught a glimpse of Brubeck’s stunned face as the door closed behind them.
They walked down the corridor together.
‘I’m interested in your ideas, Lynn,’ said Abraham.
‘You are?’ Lynn replied, playing for time. She may have lost her job, but KSA was a powerful organisation. It made sense to salvage some of her reputation.
‘Mike’s good at getting things done,’ said Abraham, looking at her with that same, inscrutable gaze. ‘But he doesn’t possess vision, imagination. I believe you do.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I’m agreeing with him – your position on his team is over. I want you to head a new project.’
‘I’m not aware of anything new,’ said Lynn, cautiously.
‘No, it’s been confidential until this point. The focus would be AI and creativity.’
Lynn was quiet for a moment. This was exciting.
‘Why me?’ she asked. She was certain that Brubeck hadn’t been singing her praises.
‘I’ve been interested in your work for a while. It was one of the reasons I came to the meeting today. I wanted to see how you reacted to today’s events.’
‘Well, you saw what happened. I got myself fired.’
‘That’s not strictly true. And I’m offering you a better position. So what do you think?’
‘I don’t know,’Lynn said carefully. ‘I’m not comfortable with some of KSA’s research aims.’
‘I understand your concerns. You’re not alone, there are others who think like you – we need to unite, so that our voices are heard.’
Lynn looked at him in surprise. Did he just say that? His face was impassive.
They had reached the lift, and Kofi pressed for ground floor. They waited in silence until the doors opened with a soft ping. The three people already inside prevented further conversation. When they reached the lobby, Kofi Abraham bid her a courteous goodbye, asking her to think over what he had said.
‘Come to my office at 10 tomorrow – we’ll discuss my proposal in more detail. Enjoy your evening.’
Lynn ran through the door of the nursery with seconds to spare. Pia rushed up and hugged her knees. Mr Khan came over, smiling.
‘Pia’s had a good day, Ms Sumner. She played with Nadia all afternoon.’
‘Oh, fantastic!’ said Lynn happily, helping Pia into her coat. She wouldn’t have to rush off tomorrow morning. Perhaps she could talk to Nadia’s dad, arrange a play date.
Pia climbed into the car seat without protest. Her thumb moved into her mouth, as her eyes glazed, their lids lowering. She would be asleep before they left the car park.
Lynn reversed out of her space, and drove into the street. On the radio, KIM-2’s ‘floating dead’ had made headline news. Two scientific commentators were explaining weird events. They reassured the interviewer that the apparitions and their unsettling labels were simply computer glitches. There was no mass hysteria in the streets – only a handful of new conspiracy-theory sites blossoming on the web.
The sky turned a dusky violet-blue. High above the Earth, the Moon shone like polished bone. Perhaps tomorrow, KIM-2 would give up her artistic pretensions and scrabble in the dirt again. Or perhaps she would decide to spend a few more days looking at the stars.