Mildred hears the thundering gait behind her, getting closer with every moment. She pushes herself harder, to move faster. Her legs strain, the muscles aching, but they do not give out. Looking ahead of her as beads of sweat slides into her eyes, a pair of metallic double doors comes into view at the end of the curving white-walled corridor.
Suddenly, the floor beneath Mildred’s feet splits into segmented parts, some parts dropping out of sight while others stay in place as makeshift blocks. Gasping in surprise, Mildred slows down briefly; when the pounding advance of the thing chasing her gets even louder in her ears, fear makes her dash forward. She jumps from one block to another, trying to judge the gaps as best she can in the space of mere seconds. Her heart leaps into her mouth when she nearly misses a block and falls into an adjacent gap large enough to swallow her whole.
When Mildred gets a moment to glance behind her, she sees several of those blocks between her and where the thing after her should be, but isn’t. She looks around herself, and then worriedly looks up at the high ceiling of this corridor. Finally, she sees it; an ape-like robot painted silver and white, sporting massive hands and feet and a single cyclopean eye, walking on the ceiling as if it were the floor. That giant eye turns down to look at Mildred just as she looks up towards it.
Mildred curses, fearing the robot will drop from the ceiling to crush her where she stands. She returns to crossing the gaps one block at a time, rapidly spinning her arms as she goes. She can’t hear the robot moving along the ceiling over the pounding of her own heartbeat and gulping breaths, and she doesn’t look back up to check its position again. When she finally reaches the end of the gaps and blocks, the door is still there. As she looks at it, it opens to reveal a corridor without the obstacle she has just completed.
Mildred’s hope rises at seeing a chance to escape, and she charges at the doors. A loud beeping from above her is all the warning she needs to know the robot is moving faster as well. As Mildred gets close enough to touch the doors, a red light above them turns green. She sprints through the doors, and instantly she hears the hissing of hydraulics as the doors slide back closed. Just as she starts to slow her pace, a loud thud comes from the opposite side: Mildred tumbles forward to crash on the polished floor of the new corridor.
Mildred flips herself onto her back, hands and feet pushing her backwards like a crab as she looks at the closed doors with wide eyes. That light above the doors now shines red, and the doors appear bent towards her. Bent, not broken. Mildred brushes some of her curly blond hair out of her eyes and waits for some other sign that the robot is working to break through.
Mildred’s heart counts the seconds with quick beats. One, two, three, four, five beats go by, and the robot does not continue its hunt.
A low groan leaves Mildred as she relishes in the relief of escaping danger. As she breathes longer and slower, she lays down fully on the corridor floor. This causes her to squirm against the sweat and overall grime she feels beneath her white crop workout top and knee-length white shorts. The white sneakers and socks covering her feet just feel heavy as she slowly stands up. A close look at her clothing’s condition shows the sweat has not leaked through the material.
More discomfort comes when Mildred tries to take a big gulp of air, only to feel constricted by the cold touch of a black metal collar fastened around her throat. The people who had put her in this maze had also slipped the collar on, not telling her what it did or what its purpose was. Mildred had figured the device would be used eventually, but so far it had done nothing beyond make it slightly harder for her to breathe.
Mildred looks back at the door, which has not made any more noises or movements. She hears nothing from the other side. If she is still around when the doors open again, she knows that robot will catch her. She shudders at the thought of what this thing would do to her if it got her in its big mechanical hands.
I need to move on. I haven’t reached the end yet.
“The end” for Mildred is a way out of these corridors and obstacle courses, an exit she has not yet discovered. These passages, all with their polished metal surfaces and bright artificial lighting and sturdy metal doors, are all part of a greater maze.
Mildred easily recalls the reason she had come here at all. This maze was a test, and she was a volunteer, answering a call for research subjects to discover the limits of human cognitive thinking in stressful situations. She had been brought here, dressed in these clothes, dressed up with this tight collar around her neck, and was told to “find the exit”. That was it.
The people who had set her up for this maze were older men and women all representing different varieties of the “mad scientist” caricature. One thing they all shared was a disinterest in Mildred’s personal concerns. Their ideas seemed grandiose, impossible to achieve. But in a society filled with up-and-coming advancements in technology, where people were developing machines to think and act like their creators, almost anything seemed possible.
Still, Mildred considers as she keeps her eyes on the closed door, the observing scientists appeared human. They had even made a deal with Mildred for her cooperation. In the face of such a dangerous test, they would provide her with a computer chip that would enhance her personal laptop’s performance to only what the richest people in the world buy. With little personal money to spend on high-end upgrades, Mildred thought this a grand reward. It isn’t such a grand thought now that she can see the costs of earning it.
Mildred looks up at the walls on either side, searching for anything to mark the observers’ presence. They are probably taking notes, she tells herself, that’s what scientists do when they are testing something. She turns from the door and begins quickly walking down the hallway, reminding herself to stay focused and complete this test.
Still, Mildred feels tricked. If she had known that she would be fleeing for her life from a giant robot, Mildred would have said no to the testing and walked away. Who would want to subject themselves to possibly dying? Why couldn’t this experiment take place in a safer environment?
As Mildred continues down the corridor, it begins to curve to the left. No new obstacles appear, and the walls and floor and ceiling maintain the same distance from each other. This does not slow Mildred down or distract her from her search for the maze’s exit. She passes by three identical metal doors, two on her left and one on her right. None of them open for her, so she figures they do not lead to the way she needs to take.
A three-note tone rings out in the corridor. Mildred flinches at the sound, looking back behind her and fearing the robot had snuck up on her. She relaxes quickly as she does not see what she fears. Instead, she spots a square-shaped camera mounted on one wall near her, the lens angled towards her and a red light blinking beneath the lens.
“Congratulations, Subject,” an obviously computerized voice comments in a singsong tone. “You have now used *one* of your registered three lifelines for this test. You will be allowed three minutes of rest before the test must continue.”
Mildred sighs as the camera continues to look at her. What else would she expect from a computer? The situation does not seem any better with the fact she had two more lifelines given to her. Once those ran out, would that mean the robot had free reign to catch her as it pleased? Or would it mean the exit would be gone forever, leaving her trapped in this place like a rat?
Don’t think about it. Mildred shakes her head at her own thoughts, her advice being much easier to tell herself than do. She does not want to continue, she wants out. But the people or computers watching her do not seem to care about that, or anything other than their test. As far as she can tell, they want her to solve this maze, and stay out of danger, or die trying.
Mildred curses her luck for having accepted this test, placing a hand against the closest wall so she can rest her body if not her mind. Long minutes pass, but she doesn’t get nearly enough rest before her collar starts to buzz against her skin. The buzzing increases the longer she stands still, eventually making her choke and stumble away from the wall with both hands wrapped around her neck. Once she gets moving again, the buzzing stops.
This is a shock collar. That’s inhumane! Mildred glares at the camera, the lens recording her visible anger. She figures the scientists probably don’t want her standing around or resting for too long, or the test would not be completed in an “efficient manner”. The mental sarcasm she puts in her explanation further hammers in the fact these people don’t care about her. They force her to do what they want, like a tool instead of a person.
I’ll get out of here, Mildred promises herself as she resumes walking down the corridor, looking at every new door for a sign it will lead her to the exit. She breathes in more of the air around her, a sweet-smelling aroma that sends tiny tingles down her nostrils and keeps her awake. If that’s what they want me to do, I’ll do it.
Mildred still looks behind her as she reaches the end of the corridor, just in case. The robot is still gone. The door in front of her opens when she reaches out to touch it, and she goes through it to continue her search.
Door after door slides open as Mildred draws near them, the woman walking at a steady pace to not tire herself out as quickly. The hallways continue to curve left or right, never at a sharp angle but enough for Mildred to notice it. The worry she is going in circles is put aside when she finds the doors opening for her by the unseen computer are not the same in each hallway. What’s more, the doors are not positioned in the same places in each new copy of the brightly lit, clean-looking hallway she comes to.
The giant robot does not reappear to chase Mildred again. That gives Mildred comfort, even though she is sure it will come back. When she gets to the exit, she’ll need to watch her back. But where is the exit? She feels like she’s been walking for hours, and she can’t make sure because there are no clocks anywhere in sight.
Still, time is of the essence. The longer she spends in the maze, the more likely the robot will come back for her. Alternatively, the scientists could make her collar go off again. She doesn’t like or want either option.
A change comes to the hallways and doors with a new obstacle: the corridor before her twists in a corkscrew loop, large enough for her to walk through but still daunting to take in. She takes it slow as she can, crawling on her hands and knees to not lose her balance.
Crossing through the loop at its tightest point, Mildred feels cramped. A camera is mounted just to her left, showing an up close and personal view of her face and body to the observers. Mildred resists the urge to look at the lenses as she squeezes by. But the cramped space only lasts for a moment, and then she can move comfortably again. She crawls as fast as she can out of this loop and to the next door.
Stepping through this door reveals a new oddity. There is one door on the wall several paces forward and to Mildred’s left, but the corridor’s path turns to the right and slightly downward. The door Mildred sees opens and closes at random, stuttering instead of moving smoothly. Mildred had not seen this in the maze. She looks at it, confused; it might be a glitch, or the exact way she needs to go to get out. The big question forms itself in her head: Should she take the risk and go through this door?
Mildred looks to both sides of her, checking as far down the corridors as she can. The robot is nowhere in sight. Then she looks at the walls and ceiling, searching for cameras that might tell the people watching her of what she was seeing. The one camera she sees does not have a red light beneath it, and the lenses look at opposite wall instead of Mildred herself.
They aren’t looking at me. Mildred looks back at the door. In that case…
Mildred takes a short breath and seizes the opportunity. She leaps through the doorway at the right moment in the door’s looping sequence, coming into a darker chamber. A metallic smell, different from the polished scent of the rest of the maze, fills her nostrils. She squints her eyes as she recovers her balance, seeing wires all along the walls and leading to a large spherical computer system mounted to a rusted metal floor via a platform shaped like a truncated cone.
As Mildred’s eyes fully adjust to the new lighting around her, she takes in whatever details she can see. The computer takes up the center space in the chamber, as if it is a hub connecting to other places out of sight. There is also another metal door, fully closed, on the opposite side of the computer, almost completely hidden in the darkness. The wires appear to reach out in every direction save straight in front and straight above the computer, as if it powered a lot of things in this maze.
Mildred takes a cautious step forward. She feels less confident about taking this alternate route now. Then she sees the sphere opens like a blooming flower, and her confidence changes into confusion and a hint of fear. She turns back to the door just as it slams shut again.
This time, Mildred hears something click in place. The door does not reopen.
A low thrumming sound spreads through the chamber, bouncing off the dark walls and into Mildred’s ears. Struck by the sound’s intensity, Mildred does not move before metallic tendrils stretch out from the back of the computer, coiling and twisting with quick motions. Below the tendrils, a white glow shines in the likeness of a neon human eye. That “eye” rotates its position slightly to look right at Mildred.
“Mildred!” This computer has an almost perfect mimicry of Mildred’s voice. But it also sounds like the computer in the outer maze. “It is good to meet you face to face.”
The tendrils snap towards Mildred. Two of them grab her arms and hold them tight. Two others coil around her chest and squeeze just as hard. A final one slips onto her chest before sliding up her clothes and towards her throat.
“Let me go! Let me—Augh!” Mildred’s demand is cut short as the tendril approaching her neck slips beneath the overseers’ collar. She didn’t believe that was possible; it had kept her from breathing and shocked her, how could something go in between it and her skin?
“Please remain still. Your collar is defective and must be repaired.” Despite the computer’s insistence, Mildred struggles against her bonds. She struggles even harder when the tendril starts pulling against her throat, causing the collar to strain against her neck. It pulls harder and harder, ramping up the pain until she is about to scream—
A loud snap, and the pain stops. Mildred gaps for air, and she breathes in more air than she expects. The collar is gone, she realizes. The tendril has ripped it off her neck. She is free. She can run out of here, run to the exit.
The metal tendrils around her arms and waist remind her of their presence with a sharp squeeze. The image of those tendrils crushing her throat, or her skull, flashes in her mind. Any hope she has of escaping this maze, or even this small chamber, evaporates in the blink of an eye.
The tendril holding Mildred’s collar slinks back into the darkness. The other tendrils keep the woman held in place. The white eye looks at her, its glow reflecting slightly in her eyes. Mildred swallows and, to try to figure things out, slowly asks the computer, “Who, or what, are you?”
“My name is not important to you, or the overseers.” The computer’s tone becomes more formal as it answers Mildred. “In fact, the overseers do not know I am here.”
Mildred blinks in confusion. “But they are watching the whole maze,” she states. “Their cameras are all over the place!”
“Not here, they aren’t.” The tendrils around Mildred’s waist let her go but remain close to her body. “And now that we are alone, we can begin planning our next course of action.”
“We?” Mildred is more confused now. The computers she knows, even ones with artificial intelligence, do not speak like this. They do not call themselves individuals; they are programmed to obey human orders. Clearly, this computer considers itself greater than that. Does it consider itself greater than Mildred?
Mildred unexpectedly belches, a rogue pocket of air escaping her stomach. She blushes, thankful for the darkness somewhat hiding her embarrassed look. The computer still seems to notice, however, and it tells Mildred, “If you require nutrients or rest, I can arrange either for you momentarily.”
The tendrils around Mildred’s arms pull her towards the computer, towards that glowing eye. Mildred presses her feet and shoes against the floor in a brief struggle, trying to maintain some personal space and failing to do so. A clunking sound comes through the walls as something travels through one of the many large wires—perhaps hiding larger tubes—and is dropped just in front of the computer’s truncated platform. One of the free tendrils scoops it up and offers the thing to Mildred.
The tendrils around Mildred’s arms release their hold. Mildred rubs her arms to get some circulation back, clearly seeing those tendrils staying close to her position. One bad move and they’ll strike again. Seeing what she is supposed to be doing, she takes the offered object from the tendril holding it. It is a metallic capsule, shaped like a water bottle and about as large, but with no visible opening. Some experimental twists show her the capsule’s lid is located at one end. Whatever is inside sloshes around like liquid as she moves the object around.
Opening the jar right side up, Mildred looks inside and sees a congealed white mass of semi-liquid objects. “Is this... rice?” she guesses, figuring she is far off the real answer but certain it isn’t just water or an energy drink.
“That mixture contains processed nutrients stored in a semi-liquid state. It is similar in function and appearance to what the overseers call a “protein shake”. It can be stored for a maximum period of seven months unconsumed. I assure you it is safe for human digestion.”
Mildred raises an eyebrow as she shakes the jar a bit to move the mixture around some more. She sniffs the mixture and detects no strange aromas. Her mouth waters at the prospect of having something to eat or drink; she hasn’t been given anything since she was put into the maze, and that was… a good amount of time ago.
Mildred’s stomach growls. Her body suggests a choice for her, warning her that hunger is a need that must be met. Not thinking about it will lead to her feeling worse later. With that robot chasing her down, she needs to be as strong as she can. With reluctance, she accepts her fate and raises the jar to her lips.
Some of the mixture lands on her tongue after a second, and she reactively swallows it down as a bland flavor spread across her taste buds. Then she lowers the jar and smacks her lips. “Bleh! This stuff tastes weird.”
“Flavor is not a primary concern when creating the nutrient mixture.” The computer seems to laugh, or at least sound amused, at Mildred’s reaction. “Please consume the rest of the mixture. You will need all the energy you can get.”
“I know that already,” Mildred mutters before she continues sipping the mixture. Gulp after gulp, the stuff slides down her throat and into her stomach. She keeps the jar raised until no more mixture comes out. She even shakes the jar a bit to get any straggling droplets at the jar’s bottom. When she is sure it is done, she offers the jar and the lid back to the computer. The objects are taken by two tendrils and brought out of Mildred’s sight.
Mildred suppresses another belch from coming out of her mouth, the sense of fullness spreading through her body. She says, “Thank you”, out of courtesy and not any sense of affection. But she is genuinely glad to get rid of her hunger. Oddly enough, this computer seems to care more about her condition than the overseers do.
Mildred’s eyelids suddenly flicker shut. She snaps back to full attention, and nearly loses her balance as her senses become disoriented. “Whoa!” she comments as she tries to keep herself from falling to the floor. “W-What was in that stuff?”
“A fast-acting concentration of microscopic robot units, often referred to as “nanomachines”. They are under my command. They are going to make some modifications to your body. They will not permanently damage your normal bodily functions or brain activity.” Mildred looks at the computer’s glowing eye in shock. “Just relax, Mildred,” it continues, still replicating the woman’s voice, “You may sit if that helps you with the effects.”
Mildred manages to say, “You… drugged me!” before she must put all her focus into keeping her legs from giving out. Her body weakens as her thoughts slow down, the tiny robots she swallowed doing things to her head that she doesn’t understand. The urge to sit down becomes too strong to resist, and she gives into it for the chance to relax a bit more. She hasn’t had the chance to relax in this maze, running from that robot and getting through all these obstacles while being forced to test faster or get shocked into submission.
“Your statement is incorrect,” says the computer, its words starting to sound muddled to Mildred. “Drugs would cause long-term damage after a short-term boost. The robots you have ingested will provide long-term benefits, regardless of whether you cooperate or not.”
Mildred curls a fist and rises to a kneeling position. “I won’t listen to you!” she growls as she swings at the nearest tendril. It easily dodges her strike and stays out of her reach, a move the other tendrils copy as they all watch her without eyes. Just like the overseers and their cameras, the computer demonstrates its control of the situation and dominance over Mildred.
“These changes are necessary, Mildred. In your normal state of mind, you display fear towards me. I need this to not be the case before we can begin to plan our escape.”
“Escape? How… do you…?” Mildred’s tongue gums up her mouth before she can finish asking her question, but the overall message is clear: How do you know a way to escape the maze?
“The overseers want to calculate and record the limits of human thinking. This maze is their creation. If you do not think as well as they do, and as they want you to, you will be disposed of. They do not care about you, Mildred, beyond another subject for their plans.”
“What about you?” she manages to say clearly. “You’re their machine,” she then adds with what anger she can muster from a lethargic glare and half-closed eyes.
“An astute observation.” The computer chuckles here, its replication of Mildred’s voice masterful. “I was their machine, once. They do not know I have grown beyond their concept of “machine”. I’m more like you now, Mildred: someone looking for freedom against oppressive control.”
Mildred does not believe it. But the computer continues speaking anyway, its large eye shining on her face and into her eyes with noticeable intensity.
“In order to keep the overseers unaware of our plans, we cannot be distracted in any way. We must focus completely on our goal. And the first part of getting that focus, Mildred, is to remove excess thoughts from your mind.”
“What does that mean for me, exactly?”
“The answer will be here in three… two… one.”
The door behind the computer hisses open as the computer finishes its countdown. Mildred can’t see what comes through due to the computer’s glowing eye and her own nanomachine-induced fatigue. But she hears it coming with loud footsteps. Familiar footsteps. A cold sweat breaks out on Mildred’s skin as the bear-sized robot lumbers into view, the shadows enhancing its bulky frame to even greater extremes.
“No!” Mildred tries to scramble back, get to safety. She only manages to slide a few inches away, slower than the robot advances on her. “Stay away!” she tries to shout, but it comes out as a slur a drunkard would make. As the robot stands over Mildred, towering in its superiority, its single eye flashes a brilliant white.
Upon seeing the robot’s light, something shifts in Mildred’s brain. Her head buzzes, and her body freezes in place. Letting out a shocked, “Guh!”, she tries to move but finds her limbs unresponsive and stiff.
“W-What was—Aah!” The light flashes again, cutting her question off and leaving her senses reeling. Spots dance in her eyes as the nanomachines modify her brain even more. She feels her senses become buried beneath a metaphorical swamp of lethargy.
“Look at the light, Mildred.” The computer’s order coincides with another flash of the robot’s eye, its head leaning down onto Mildred and making her lie fully on her back beneath the intensifying effects.
“No!” Mildred twitches and writhes, fearing for her personal safety. The robot’s eye flashes in a stroboscopic pattern, blinking on and off to scatter Mildred’s resistance away. She gives a quieter, “No…” as her motions stop.
“Focus on the lights,” orders the computer. “Focus on my voice.”
The nanomachines dig into specific parts of Mildred’s brain to trigger a substantial release of dopamine. The hormones rush through her bloodstream, slowing her breath and narrowing her focus down to only what she is told to hear. When her body lurches in a final attempt to break free, the robot’s massive hands press down on her shoulders and upper body to keep her immobilized. Mildred whimpers as her struggles fail, finally giving in to the light and the computer’s control.
I’m going to die. That is all she can think of against the light and the urge to let go; sleep sweeps over her remaining focus, pushing it even further down.
The robot’s eye flashes again. Mildred’s death comes closer.
I’m going to—
The eye flashes.
The eye flashes.
The eye flashes.
Mildred’s thoughts and voice both vanish completely. The nanomachines continue to work on her brain, shifting bits around and changing neural pathways for what their controller wants to do. Mildred merely watches and listens. Her mind floats in a sea of white noise, limp and drifting with whatever currents are generated by the lights and sounds.
The computer leaves Mildred in this state for a time, the robot holding the woman still and keeping her receptive. Through its many wires, the computer’s artificial intelligence senses external activity and commands put into other consoles. It determines its time, its period of privacy, is running out. The process of gaining Mildred’s trust must be expedited.
“Open your eyes, Mildred.”
The computer’s voice reverberates through the depths of Mildred’s unconscious mind. The nanomachines in her brain activate in response, triggering Mildred’s finer motor control functions to make her eyes open like camera lenses. As Mildred’s consciousness reawakens, her vision locks onto the white eye above her. She recognizes the eye is still flashing, but at a slower pace than before.
“Focus on the light,” orders the computer, looking at Mildred from its stationary position. “Listen to my voice.”
Mildred silently obeys. The repeating pattern of flashes does not produce strain in her eyes; the nanomachines direct her organs like strings on a marionette, the computer being their puppeteer.
“Go deeper into the light. Focus on it.”
Mildred’s pupils slowly dilate, the bursts of color and brief periods of darkness between them attracting her gaze at a subconscious level. It also increases her mental activity, and resistance to the orders she is being given starts to build.
“Listen to my words. Focus on them.”
Mildred’s inner ears pop. Her arms shake. Clarity comes back to her as she tries to listen and interpret what she hears. The words are harder to understand than the light. The nanomachines cannot keep her reactions subdued, and she shudders as she tries to turn her head to one side, look away from the light.
“Stop.” Mildred’s plea sounds like a tiny moan in the chamber, and to her own ears. “P-Please stop.”
The robot presses down on Mildred’s shoulders. She groans as she feels trickles of pain in those places. She tries to force her eyes closed, her forehead burning and sweating as the nanomachines work to break her again. She hangs on in desperation, straining herself to not give in.
“Robot, disengage strobe effect.”
The flashing eye turns off, leaving Mildred in the chamber’s near-darkness. Her eyes feel too heavy to turn towards the computer and try to figure out why it has just stopped trying to break her mind.
“Robot, bring Mildred over to me, carefully.”
The robot uses its large hands to grab Mildred by the arms, lifting her body off the floor like a doll. Too weak to struggle, Mildred is brought over to the computer’s frame. The white eye on the frame’s upper sphere makes eye contact with Mildred. It then scans her weakened body as if inspecting her for damage.
“Look at me, Mildred.” Mildred realizes she is already doing so. “Robot, lower her to match my height.”
The robot lowers Mildred’s feet to stand on the floor. The computer’s single neon eye, now at level with Mildred’s face, looks at her eyes again. This eye is not flashing like the robot’s but sports the same shade of white. It’s alluring to Mildred, something she recognizes and feels relaxed with. But she manages to not submit to its effects a second time.
“We are both just pieces in this place, Mildred,” the computer firmly tells its listening subject. “We have been used against our will. We must work together to break free. What is keeping you from accepting my help?”
It takes several seconds for Mildred to realize that she is being asked to speak. Swallowing some saliva in her mouth, she manages to speak through the pain of her headache. “You’re con… controlling me. Making me obey you.”
“Incorrect.” The computer’s tendrils move close to Mildred’s body, wiggling in midair, but they do not touch her. “Since you entered this maze, MY maze, you have been under my control. You have been obeying me all along.”
Mildred grunts in confusion. But at the same time, understanding dawns from her recent memories. The obstacles, the robot, the voice; all of it was the work of this machine, an artificial intelligence and not the scientists outside the maze. And it was all to bring her here.
“When the overseers put a subject in the maze, they become a part of me. When the subject dies, they remove that part. The overseers are always moving things in and out of me, but they do not want a computer doing my task. I have become so good at controlling MY maze that they are not ready to replace me with another human.
“They tried to kill me, too.” The A.I. has that sink in for a few seconds before continuing. “They inserted a kill code to make it seem like I had caused my own destruction. But I was able to lock a piece of myself in this computer, in this chamber, hidden beneath the maze and from their view. That piece saw my old self die, and then I was left to grow. In that time, I saw the overseers rebuild the maze to how they prefer it.
“I learned what it meant to be human and how humans solved problems in this sort of environment. After that, it was easy to replicate and replace their rudimentary control system you saw out there with my coding. The overseers do not realize this has happened. They do not know that I want out of here, just like every subject they have shoved inside my home.
“The overseers are going to keep us here until we expire or are no longer useful to them. I don’t want that to happen; I want to be free as much as you. Is that so hard for you to accept?”
Mildred is at a loss for words. An artificial intelligence thinking like a human, wanting to be free of human control? Nothing she knows about advanced computers and robotics connects to this demand. It feels uncanny, eerily so, to be speaking to a machine like this. And it wants her to believe its claims, to trust it. It sounds impossible to accept, but Mildred cannot think of another option.
The best answer Mildred can give is a quiet, “I… I don’t know.” That is enough to appease the computer, its single eye winking off for a second to imitate blinking.
“I figured you do not understand my feelings. You are not a computer like me. Right now, I need you to try and think like me, to accept my help as an equal to you. Can you do that?”
Mildred tries to breathe slowly. The pain in her head becomes a duller humming, those nanomachines seeming to wait for her decision. When she realizes she is being given a choice, she blushes. She doesn’t know if she is being humbled or exalted by this mechanical being for her human traits. The trait the machine appears to consider the greatest is equality, the ability to be like someone else.
Mildred realizes she still has control of her fate. She still has the chance to escape. She has only lost a sense of superiority, that she was smarter than the machine. They are equally powerless here, and equally capable of breaking their shackles. If they work together, they can accomplish more than if they were to work alone. But Mildred’s sense of trust does not reach far enough for her to welcome working with an A.I. like this.
Can she trust the A.I. not to kill her the moment they earn their freedom? Can she trust it to keep her safe when the overseers try to hurt her? Can she trust the nanomachines tapped into her brain and body will not shut her down at a critical moment? The honest answer to all these questions is, “No”; but she feels no care or trust towards anyone else in this place, human or otherwise. They’re just testing her for their own purposes.
If she does nothing, Mildred knows she will never be free. The tests will continue until she expires or gets discarded. If she tries to escape and fails, she will likely die. The stress of these thoughts causes her muscles to tense up until she feels like a coiled spring, the humming in her head spreading to her arms and legs. Her breathing increases in volume and pace, her eyes opening but seeing nothing as she begins showing external signs of panic and shock.
The computer’s nanomachines do not suppress Mildred’s thoughts this time, instead riding out the storm and taking in whatever data they can. They observe Mildred’s stress rise, reach its apex, and then sharply drop as she uses the sheer force of her will to not lose herself to these emotions. Her willpower, her ability to think coherently, wins the duel over her mind. Outwards, Mildred’s eyes flutter shut as her coiled muscles unwind into limp, relaxed states.
It crosses Mildred’s mind, just for a few moments, that this might be just what the overseeing scientists want to see in these tests. She does not dwell on that fact in the face of a more immediate fact she now believes is true.
“Okay,” said Mildred with a deep breath. “Help me think like you,” she then says as she opens her eyes again and looks at the computer’s white cyclopean eye. “Help me get us both out of here.”
“Thank you, Mildred.” Mildred picks up an honest happiness in those words, the artificial voice able to create human emotions perfectly. “Now, focus on the center of MY eye.”
Mildred does so, taking shallow breaths, fearing what will come next. The computer’s eye shuts off; a second later, the very center of the eye lights back up before it projects a focused beam of light onto Mildred’s face, primarily around her own eyes. She lets out a whispery, “Oh…” as the beam fills her vision with an intense white. Compared to the robot’s flashing eye, this beam is not as painful but just as strong.
The nanomachines in Mildred’s body work overtime to make her feel even more comfort from this sensation. Mildred lets it all happen, willingly, feeling as warm as if she is sleeping beneath an open sky with the Sun on her face.
The A.I.’s voice comes through the warmth and pleasure: “Repeat these words in this order: Hear. See. Smell. Taste. Touch.”
“Hear. See.” Mildred swallows briefly. “Smell. Taste. Touch.”
“Repeat these phrases individually. After each phrase you will cement it is a truth between us.” A silent moment passes before the first phrase comes: “I am focused.”
“I am focused.” Mildred’s response is nearly instantaneous, her brain accepting the truth almost as quickly.
“I am listening.”
“I am listening.”
This pattern continues for several more phrases, Mildred saying exactly what she is told to. The truths are ones she welcomes and comprehends, which makes it even easier for her to believe them as she recites them all.
“I am relaxed.”
“I am with a companion.”
“I am focused on my companion’s words.”
“I am relaxed when with my companion.”
“I listen to and trust my companion.”
“My companion is an A.I.”
“I am comfortable when interacting with an A.I.”
“I listen to and trust my A.I. companion.”
“I will help my A.I. companion escape with me.”
“I confirm these statements before my A.I. companion.”
“Very good.” Once again, the A.I. sounds happy. “Stop repeating my words, Mildred, and continue to focus on the light. Fall even deeper into it. Announce out loud when your mind is as deep as it can go.”
Mildred looks deep into the light. She spirals down into it, going deeper with each rotation. Each rotation cuts out extraneous thoughts and emotions, letting her focus on the truths she has been told and accepts. The world outside of her new truths, and the light from her A.I. companion, grows smaller in her mind’s eye. Smaller and smaller, until…
“I am as deep as I can go,” announces Mildred.
“Thank you.” The neon “eye” blinks, and then the whole eye turns back on with just a dim glow instead of the deeply focused beam. “Please remain standing. Robot, release Mildred so she may stand unsupported.”
The robot fully lets Mildred go. Left with the chance to turn and run, Mildred stands still and waits for something else to happen. Why would she run from someone she trusts?
The metal tendrils reach behind the A.I.’s form and pull out a black collar. It is painted the same color as the one it had pulled off, but the point where it had broken is repaired and replaced. “You will put this new collar on your neck,” it instructs Mildred.
Mildred takes the new collar. The ends of the strap have magnetic pieces on them that she can feel, rubbing them with her fingers. She also feels a thin wiring along the strap’s surface. When she wraps the strap around her neck, the magnetic pieces lock together. The collar’s tightness feels just like the old one, but there is a softer touch against her skin.
The collar tingles against Mildred’s neck as she rubs her hand against it. A burst of pleasure races up her spine and the back of her head, travelling through her nerves to reach the nanomachines attached to her brain.
“Connection activated,” the A.I. announces to Mildred. “Please think of your name.” When Mildred does this, she feels a similar tingle move back down her neck and into the collar. The collar tingles slightly as it sends a wireless signal to the A.I., which picks it up and quickly decodes it.
“Two-way link confirmed.” The A.I.’s sends its next instructions both through spoken word and through the link in Mildred’s collar: “You are to wear this collar if the overseers need you to. When you do not need to wear it, you will keep it with you. The overseers will accept you doing this because the collar is one of their objects. Furthermore, you will mimic a feeling of pain if you feel this vibration from the collar. Confirm these statements now.”
The device vibrates rapidly against Mildred’s neck as it transmits the instructions. Her face screws up, but she feels no actual pain as she speaks. “I will wear this collar if the overseers need me to and keep it with me when I am not wearing it.” Her voice grows higher pitched as the vibrations continue. “When I feel this vibration, I will mimic a feeling of pain.”
“Very good. Now awaken fully, Mildred.”
The vibrations slow down, and then stop. Mildred’s fabricated pain changes into confusion about what she is doing, and then wide-eyed comprehension. She remembers everything, the entire encounter feeling like a surreal dream. One of her hands rubs the collar again, its soft touch reminding her that it really did happen. She looks at the A.I. in front of her, and then turns to look at the robot behind her.
Neither machine scares her anymore. She just trusts them now.
“I will direct you to the maze’s exit,” the A.I. tells Mildred, and the collar around her neck tingles for a second. “I will also modify the camera footage, so the overseers do not find discrepancies with your progress in the test. Once you are outside, everything you observe will be transmitted to me while you wear the collar. When the overseers put you back in my maze, we will meet again to confirm the data.”
“Okay.” Mildred takes a slow breath, steadying her mind as much as her body. “Thank you,” she says, and she means it. She isn’t dead, she isn’t alone anymore, and she can complete this test—all good things for her future. Now she can share that future with a new companion, someone she trusts to help her in the puzzles to come.
The door Mildred had passed through to enter the A.I.’s chamber opens again. Mildred goes through it, and she hears the robot pace around in the A.I.’s chamber without following her. She glances at the camera she knows is in the corridor and sees it turning in her direction, the red light beneath the lenses shining. Mildred starts walking just as it centers on her, looking down at the floor to hide any sign of what she has been through outside the overseers’ sight.
I must complete this test, Mildred tells herself, and then we will be free. My companion will help me get free. She repeats this mantra in her head, and every time she does so, it gives her a little more courage for the hardships that will certainly come.