I lay still, eyes closed, breathing the even breaths of a sleeping person. I roll over, my back to the window and hear the click that indicates the Viewers are here. But when I settle again, still for more than two minutes, there’s another click and they are gone. I am alone.
I’ve lived like this for three years now, knowing that my every move is observed, recorded, analyzed, dissected. But I’m not the only one. The whole town of Fischglas is under scrutiny. 200 of us live together inside what is essentially a huge snow globe without the snow– unless precipitation is delivered by the Viewers.
Giving up my sleeping ruse, there’s a click as I flick through the weather on my phone—sunny today and rain on Wednesday. Switching to Akvarium’s weather, I see snow awaits me in the next town where I work. With the glass around their town, they’re a true snow globe today. I roll my eyes.
“This’ll make dressing interesting,” I mumble to myself and head for the one camera-less room—the bathroom.
In my building’s lobby, I walk faster, noting the time and the fact that the train to Akvarium is always precisely on time. I beat the click of a camera as I pass and smile to myself; that small bit of control never gets old.
“Good morning, Joon.” The doorman nods, smiles, and turns back to the street. The same greeting every morning.
“Good morning, Arthur,” I reply and am out on the streets where I see all the same people every morning.
Sunny– long blond hair, flowing tie-dye skirt, a skip in her step– raises one hand in greeting and smiles. I raise mine too as she passes. Albert, in his black suit with close cut black hair and a briefcase in his right hand, walks by with only a nod, which I return. Finally, Vera and Ginger– identical twins with stringy brown hair and round gold glasses, wearing high-waisted pleated pants and sensible shoes. My eyes meet theirs, one after the other in quick succession, but as always, they press their glasses further up their noses and look down. I do the same as I reach the end of the building where the sun nearly blinds me.
The tunnel entrance on the corner is dark and cool as I descend. The train will arrive in just two minutes, so I pick up my speed, scan my ID at the gate, and join the small crowd at the edge of the track.
The train arrives at exactly 8:00 am and is in Akvarium’s tunnel at 8:20 am. Despite the heavy snow, the streets of Akvarium are as…different as ever. While everyone walks with quiet purpose at home, always focused on the task at hand, people walk hand-in-hand here, talking and laughing, no matter the weather. Two men walk toward me, arm in arm, one holding a travel cup. The sidewalk is tight, and I’m on the inside. I realize too late that the coffee-carrying man doesn’t see me as he plows into me, splashing coffee down my front. I plaster a forgiving mask across my features, as I know the Viewers require, withholding my angry words.
“I’m so sorry!” the man says, one hand on my shoulder. I smile, nodding my forgiveness, so he travels on with his companion. Examining the mess, most of the coffee landed on my coat. A small miracle.
It never would have happened in Fischglas where everything is so orderly and neat. Schedules are kept and conversations are limited to necessary details. Myrtle, my far-too-chatty coworker, springs to mind. She rambles on and on about her cat, her latest knitting project, the weather, and any number of bizarre facts about Victorian royalty. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
She’s at her desk when I arrive, dark hair in a messy bun on her head, pink framed glasses on her face, and (probably) hand-knitted black sweater covered in various cat pictures– cats drinking milk, cats cuddling, cats playing with yarn–ironic. Myrtle spins in her chair, her round face lighting up as her eyes land on me.
“Joonie!” she says, clapping her hands together. “Can you believe all this snow? I hope it stops before quitting time.”
What was the point in weather talk? It isn’t random. But sometimes Myrtle plays stupid, cocking her head to one side and getting a confused look on her face when I mention it. So I don’t this time, because I just can’t deal with it this morning. Instead, I nod and smile, hoping it will satisfy Myrtle.
Myrtle takes this as an invitation to continue our one-sided discussion. “You should have seen what Mr. Tiddlywinks did this morning!” she gushes and pulls out her phone. “Here, look! I got it recorded.” And she pushes it into my hands.
I sigh and stare at the screen. An orange tabby with an irritated look about him sits on a brown carpet, his tail flicking quickly back and forth. “There’s Mr. Tiddlywinks,” Myrtle narrates. “And that’s just my hand putting the shoe box beside him.” I nod, keeping my comments to myself. The Viewers are always watching. Mr. Tiddlywinks squeezes into the waiting box and hunkers down inside, the edges bulging in opposition to his bulk.
Myrtle pulls the phone back and flips through. Hopefully she isn’t looking for another video. “Can you believe he squeezed himself in there?”
I can. But I don’t tell her this.
She hands the phone back. “I had to see what he would do with an even smaller box!” I watch Mr. Tiddlywinks as he’s lifted from the shoe box. An old tissue box with the top cut off sits beside him. I swear he glares at the camera as he gets up and settles himself inside. Half of his body hangs out the top, but he doesn’t seem to care.
Myrtle claps and laughs at her oh-so-hilarious cat. “Isn’t he just the funniest?” She takes her phone back, turning to her desk and continuing to scroll, likely for another cat video.
I turn to my desk too, turning my laptop on and hoping Myrtle gets the hint.
That evening, I lay motionless on the couch, reading a manuscript for work. Juley stares long and hard into the eyes of her AI housekeeper, Rosie, but she doesn’t even blink in response. Her face remains blank for several seconds before twisting into the same one Juley gives her now. When Juley gasps in surprise, Rosie pauses and then does the same. She’s learning, Juley realizes. And quickly too.
Do AI bots really learn from humans? I pull my phone out and enter it in the search engine, but there are no results. Weird. I try a different combination but still get nothing. Switching to a different search engine with different words still yields nothing. Irritated, I enter “funny cat videos” and immediately get 2 million hits. Then, “How long does it take to hatch a chicken egg?” And another page of 3.2 million hits comes up.
Frustrated, I decide to show it to tech support at work tomorrow and head to bed.
I’m distracted by my search engine issues as I approach the lobby door in the morning.
“Good morning, Joon,” Arthur says with a nod, followed by a smile.
Still distracted, I don’t even look at him, just lift a hand and mumble, “hmm.”
I hardly notice any of the greetings of the usual people out on the sidewalk this morning as I watch the ground in front of me, still pondering more questions about last night. I glance to the left, across the street, and see an unsavory-looking guy leaning against the wall of a building, hands in his pockets, in front of a green dumpster in the alley. He makes direct eye contact with me, narrowing his eyes. Unnerved, I quicken my step and dart into the depths of the tunnel to get on the train.
At work, Myrtle wears another cat sweater– this one is bright pink to match her glasses and is patterned with tiny black cats in columns and rows over the entire thing. She’s on the phone when I arrive, so I slip past her and down to August, in tech support.
“Excuse me?” I say when I’ve arrived in the dungeon-like basement littered with old hard drives and other devices I don’t recognize.
He turns to me and smiles. “Hello. How can I help you today?”
“My phone’s having issues. Some of my searches don’t work in any of the standard search engines. Can you fix it?”
He nods and takes the phone. “Of course I can. One moment.” In less than five minutes, he’s handing it back. “Are you aware that your phone was full of spyware?”
I shake my head as I stare at my screen, opening a search engine.
“You also had a rather persistent filter installed. It was blocking quite a bit of content. I was able to remove it,” August says.
I enter “can AI bots learn from humans?” into the search engine and get 2.4 million hits. I click one and read.
Humanoids, the next big thing in AI, have grown so lifelike in the labs that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate the human from the humanoid. However, there are clues that may prove useful if they’re released on the market.
- Humanoids begin as blank slates. Upon activation, they quickly adapt and learn new information.
- Humanoids are capable of learning to imitate human speech, gestures, mannerisms, and more. Within seconds, they take on what’s put into them and repeat it, giving the impression of connection.
- Humanoids have perfect memories. Need to recall a conversation in order to end an argument? Your humanoid can repeat it back for you.
- Humanoids will anticipate your movements as they learn to know you. Your humanoid will open doors, get your morning coffee, and even move aside to allow you safe passage.
Where do you get these amazing humanoids? They are currently in the final testing phase and will be released for sale in the coming months. Once on the market, there’s no end to their uses—
Something feels off, but I’m not sure what yet.
“And then Mr. Tiddlywinks dove on top of the twistie and flicked his little tail!” Myrtle gushes, searching her pockets for her phone. “It was SO cute! I’m sure I have a video somewhere.” I’m not sure what I was thinking inviting Myrtle over, but it’s too late to take it back. Her mouth doesn’t stop, even when we emerge from the tunnel later. I look across the street and see the creepy guy in the same position, glaring in my direction. I look away, swallowing hard. Albert walks toward us and we nearly collide. He pauses on the sidewalk, steps to one side, and continues on with a nod as Myrtle rambles on about a cat funeral. “Only 14! Can you believe it? We lost Pixie much too young.”
“I thought 14 was old for a cat?” I say, surprising even myself.
Myrtle gapes at me for a moment as we reach the door to my building. Arthur is there, looking at his phone. I wave as Myrtle says, “I want to get Mr. Tiddlywinks a red bow tie!” Arthur lifts one hand and grunts in my direction but doesn’t look up. I look back at him, confused. He’s never been so stand-offish. And realize that maybe it’s Myrtle. I shrug and continue on, pressing the elevator’s up arrow.
As the doors open and we enter, the cameras click on.
“What was that sound?” Myrtle asks, looking around.
More cameras click through the hall and into my apartment.
“Seriously?” Myrtle says again, looking around like a paranoid psycho. “You don’t hear that? It’s like a clicking.”
“Come on,” I say and put the coffees on the table. “That’s just the Viewers. You know that.”
“The Viewers?” Myrtle repeats. “What are you talking about?”
“Viewers,” I repeat. “They’re watching through the cameras?”
Myrtle gapes at me. “You have cameras…”
I nod. Now I know she’s insane. “It’s part of the experiment.”
Myrtle is quieter than I’ve ever seen her. It’s unnerving. “No,” she finally says and walks out of my apartment, leaving me to wonder what else isn’t true about this whole thing.
The events are still running through my head when I reach the lobby in the morning. I greet Arthur as usual, but he responds, “I want to get Mr. Tiddlywinks a red bow tie!”
Bewildered, I stumble outside. The moment I’m through the door, everyone is talking all around me…
“He was only 14!”
“Much too young–”
…about everything that Myrtle said yesterday. Albert approaches, smiling, as he talks about his own nonexistent cat, Mr. Tiddlywinks. I turn in place, focusing on each face as they pass. Every single one of them has Myrtle’s annoying jabbering lilt to their voice this morning.
And then it clicks.
I run across the street to test my theory, walking straight at the glaring, motionless man in the alley. I jab him in the shoulder. “Why are you always looking at me?”
His face goes blank as he stands tall before me and then his eyes focus on mine, his mouth screwing up and eyebrows pulling together. “Why are you always looking at me?”
I shake my head and he shakes his too. “There’s something wrong with you.”
“There’s something wrong with you.”
I turn, stalking across the street in the midst of the Myrtle monologue. “Stop!” I shout.
Every eye is on me, faces blank. “You’re humanoids.”
A loud alarm shrieks to life and a blond, bespectacled woman pushes through the crowd flanked by two guards.
“Three years of research, gone!” she hisses, before turning to the guard on her right. “Take her to the lab. We need to wipe every humanoid memory, starting with her.” The guard nods, and she turns to the one on the left. “Get the human named Myrtle. Akvarium can’t be compromised too.”
Strong hands take hold of my arms and steer me down the street. I fight against him, but he’s too strong and I give up resisting. The guard marches toward a pawn shop door and enters a code in a hidden keypad.
We walk inside. A camera clicks.