One night last week, I thought I had a breakthrough. I was fiddling with a new set of code in the middle section of the input. I don’t work with the programme directly of course. It’s beyond us now. No-one has any idea what it’s doing. It’s meant to be running simulations to find a solution to the energy crisis but it doesn’t do anything.
It was one in the morning. Maybe two. Most of the time its just me and a screen. Sometimes the text dances, my head spins, the world becomes distant. I should probably stop when this happens, but I never do.
Anyway, I’d loaded all the input. Then nothing. No reaction. Just a blinking cursor. I screamed in silent frustration. Test infinity and three was another failure. (I looked at the actual amount of tests I’d ran over the last four years and it was only five thousand or so. Seems like so much more.)
I heard a knock behind me. It was my supervisor, Elaine, come to check up on my progress and-
No, wait, that was another time. Was it?
It was someone, anyway. They stood in the doorway, trying to make small talk. I mostly ignored them and turned back to the screen. There was a response. An actual response:
Not much- but it was something.
This was the most I’d gone out of the program for four solid years. I might actually have some results. Something to show.
The other person must have wandered away at some point. I’m not sure when. I spent the whole night throwing slight variations of the input at the program. Nothing. The screen was back to black.
I left at dawn, feeling like I’d let myself down in some way. Like it was a test and I’d failed. I felt sick. I had cramps high in my stomach and I wasn’t sure why. My chest felt tight. I went home and tried to sleep.
I must have only got a couple of hours before I woke up, heart beating fast, head spinning. My chest was still tight. I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. I knew those two hours were all I was getting. So I got up.
I can’t remember when I last slept properly. All I do these days is get home and lie down on the bed for four hours or so, staring at the ceiling, making patterns in the dark. I wait for a time when it’s even remotely acceptable to go back to the lab. The hours slip by slowly. I’m ninety percent fuelled by caffeine at the moment. The other ten percent is fear.
My housemates never see me. I’m always in when they’ve gone to bed and out before they get up. They’re not ideal. Two blokes who work in accounting or something equally dull, then go out on the weekend or escape into virtual worlds. I often wonder what they think of me, the woman who haunts their extra bedroom. The phantom tenant.
I should find my own place, I often think. Only problem is it’s so far down the list of priorities I can’t even think about it. There’s a million and one other items on the never-ending to-do list and all of them are more screamingly urgent. I’m trying to ignore all of them as well. My life has shrunk down to a single purpose- getting the bloody PhD finished. Everything else, my friends, my health, sometimes even eating and drinking, can wait.
At this point, I’m not even sure I care. I’m pushing a rock up a hill only to watch it fall down again. This has been going on for millennia. Or at least that’s what it feels like. Phaethon Labs were very kind. They extended the deadline twice by six months at a time. Fully funded too. The uni was annoyed but they aren’t really calling the shots. I guess that’s the advantage of having a large corporation fund your research. But their tolerance can only be pushed so far. My last application for an extension was rejected. So now I have to produce something. Anything. As long as it vaguely looks like a thesis, I’ll be happy.
Each day blends into one. I’m in the lab or I’m pretending to sleep. I forget the day and time. I forget who I am. I feel curiously disconnected from myself, like I’m watching myself from a distance.
The next morning, I think, after the breakthrough, my housemate Eoin was playing some VR game in the living room. He was lost in his own world.
Walking on tiptoes, I hoped not to disturb him. I didn’t really want to talk to Eoin. He was loud and overbearing. Something about him put me on edge. I crept past. He couldn’t see me, his eyes were hidden behind the headset. He was in another reality. I was concentrating too much on not making a sound when I banged my toe on the table.
Eoin made a halt gesture and took off his headset.
‘Hey there Brie. Good to like see you finally.’
I hated being called Brie. My name is Bryony. It just sounds so childish. I am not a cheese. That’s why Eoin liked to use it. He liked to belittle people and make them feel small. Especially women. He said Brie with a smirk. He knew I hated it. I took a deep breath and decided to ignore it. Another problem I couldn’t deal with right now.
‘I was just heading out actually…’
‘Cool. You should like come back early tonight. Have some beers with the lads. Show your like pretty face once in a while.’ He smirked again. I mumbled something and left as soon as possible.
Next thing I knew, I was in the lab, in front of the program again. The same blinking cursor. How long had I been there? I remembered nothing of the walk to work. All I remembered was a feeling of nausea. Something about Eoin puts my skin on edge. Oh well, I was here so I might as well work.
I remember when I started my PhD, I had such high hopes. My research was going to revolutionise the world, generate endless energy and solve the power crisis. I wasn’t just hopeful, I was certain. So much for all that. Now I’d just be happy to have anything to show.
My supervisor was stood in my lab. How long had she been stood there, waiting for me to come back to myself?
‘Sorry Elaine, I didn’t-’
‘Don’t worry about it. I’m often absent without realising,’ she said without smiling. ‘Are you prepared for the conference next week?’
‘Of course.’ I said. In reality, I’d forgotten all about it. Elaine nodded curtly and we made awkward small talk, when all the time my head was going into overdrive. What conference? Where was it? Was I presenting a paper?
As soon as Elaine left, I went to check my calendar. No signal. Of course. This room was a black hole, no signals in, no signals out. We needed to be sure the program was sealed off from all signals for pure data analysis. Not that there was anything in the program that could connect to the internet but we didn’t want to take the risk. It meant I couldn’t access my calendar, because of course it was on the bloody cloud and didn’t work without a network connection.
I knew the terminal the program was on ran a very basic operating system. I used it every time I booted up. It had a browser. It was against the rules but I needed to know. I couldn’t focus on anything. My chest was tight again, my breathing quick. There was that same dizziness like I was falling again. I could almost feel the wind rushing up around me. If I was down to speak that meant I needed to write a paper and I had no idea when I was meant to do that.
Checking that no one was around, I snuck down the corridor to the supply room. Buried under some miscellaneous circuits, I found an old worn ethernet cable. I shoved it under my jumper and scurried back.
I’d lose the PhD if anyone saw me. But then I’d probably lose it if I didn’t present a paper. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I went for the option that involved less public humiliation.
There was a port on this machine, thankfully. A little dusty but no matter, it was there.
The computer had some ancient browser on it. I went to my calendar and logged in. It took an age. I thought the university had superfast fibre? I was watching the door nervously, wondering if anyone would walk in and catch me in the act.
Nothing in my calendar. Shit. I went to my email. Searched for ‘conference’. Sure enough, there it was, from about three months ago. From my supervisor Elaine. The good news was that it was in the department so I didn’t have to go anywhere. The bad news was it was in three days and I had nothing to present. I vaguely remembered a conversation with Elaine, how she was organising it with Phaethon, how it was an excellent opportunity to show off my work to my sponsors, how she was really excited.
I took ten deep breaths to try and control the rising panic. They did nothing. It felt like I was falling off a cliff. I had nothing to show. No results, barely any data.
Disconnecting the cable, the ran back down the corridor. I had only been connected for fifteen minutes. I know it was against the rules but that wouldn’t make a difference, surely?
Without much choice in the matter, I spend all day at my laptop, typing as fast as I could. My fingers were a blur but then so were my words. I stayed in the lab, ignoring the ringing in my ears until my head was spinning and I felt nauseous and like I was falling. At some point in the night, I got a message. Withheld number, not really saying much, just ‘…’ I deleted and ignored it. Or tried to. My mind kept coming back to the message. It was weird but it somehow filled me with dread. I couldn’t explain it.
Around two in the morning on the first day, I started to have an idea of what I wanted to say. I could see it, there was a light I was tumbling down towards. I was aware of how weak and useless human bodies were, how inconvenient it was to keep running. The body required constant attention, food, water and sleep. A desire for all of them at the same time hit me hard. It was like hitting a wall. As much as I wanted to continue, I needed to try and pretend to get some rest.
Eoin was drunk again when I got back. I hated it. He was sprawled out on the sofa, staring into space. Much the same as he was when I left him two or three days before.
‘Good night?’ I asked him, trying to be cheerful to not to provoke him.
He struggled to focus on my face. Eventually, he found me.
‘Oh right, why?’
He smiled a goofy smile. More than half cut I thought.
‘Weird. Was at this club like chatting to a tidy piece. Was good. Then the lights like and sound and screens just stopped. Pffft. Like that.’
He clapped for some reason. I tried to hide my shaking.
‘Couldn’t come back on. Everything gone. Silence.’
‘Oh right.’ I tried to edge towards the door, away from his roaming eyes.
‘Anyway, this ride right, she like text me her number but it came through like all weird.’
‘She wasn’t into you,’ I said, perhaps blunter than I intended.
‘No, like scrambled… Like there was something wrong.. with the phone… but it was fine.’
He passed his phone over to me. Sure enough, there was the number, but it was covered in symbols. Like encryption gone wrong. I ran away to my room, locked the door and lay in my bed, pretending to sleep.
The night before the conference, after forever in the lab, working on the bloody paper and actually getting somewhere, I pressed save. I was most of the way there. Then my computer crashed.
When I say crashed, I mean properly crashed. It went straight to a black terminal and stayed there. The cursor blinked no matter what it did, only showing:
It was endlessly awaiting my input but didn’t do anything when I tried to type. I reset the laptop. It booted to the same terminal, almost immediately, skipping the familiar loading screen. This couldn’t be happening. I sat on the chair, rocking back and forth, repeating ‘No’ to myself as if that was going to make any difference. I cried a bit which also didn’t change anything.
Pushing away the sickness and the panic that rose up to meet me, I tried to think logically. There had to be some way around it. Had I saved my work on the cloud? I think so. That was something at least, I still had a backup of it, Just no way of accessing it.
I didn’t know what to do. I tried pressing the on switch, again and again and again. It refused to even load, staying permanently off. I felt my head go light and bile rise in my throat. I staggered to the computer room, barely used these days. I tried the computers one after another. None of them worked. They either didn’t turn on or they booted to the same blank terminal with the same mocking cursor.
Now I was watching it from the end of a dark tunnel. This couldn’t be happening. It was a bad dream. All the sleepless nights had caught up with me and I had finally cracked and couldn’t distinguish between reality and dreams.
However long I sat, it didn’t help. The screens all stayed blank. Each and every one. I’d never seen anything like it. Maybe it was a network failure or a virus that had spread around the campus.
The computer room was empty. Everyone else had gone home long before. So I screamed. The sound echoed around the room, bouncing off the sterile walls and rebounding into my head. I can’t exactly say it helped, but it certainly did something.
So I didn’t really have much other option. I booted up the paper on my phone. It was half there. That was good. I hadn’t lost it all.
All night I say hunched over my tiny screen. My phone was old and slow but it could at least type the document. No pictures, but that didn’t matter. The words were what was important. I typed until my thumbs were sore and beyond. My world shrunk to the six inch rectangle glowing in front of me.
Maybe I blacked out now and then. I’m not sure. The hours seemed to skip by, merrily bringing in the dawn and banishing the night while I was trying to make some sense of my research.
Around the time the sun was crawling into the sky, I finished. I typed the final sentence and wrote ‘Any questions?’ after it. I was done. I pressed save and surrendered myself to the dizziness, allowing myself to fall.
The next thing I knew, there was a shake on my shoulder. Why had Eoin snuck into my room? I jumped, ready to strike back. I opened my eyes to find Elaine looking down at me with concern. I sat up. Still in the computer lab, still huddled over my phone, which was plugged into the wall. At least I’d had the foresight to do that.
‘Hey, you alright?’ Elaine said.
‘I’m fine,’ I said, but it came out more like ‘Emfinn’. My mouth felt devoid of all moisture.
Elaine’s hand was still on my shoulder. She squeezed it and smiled. She looked at me like a mother might look at a sick child.
‘Whilst I appreciate your commitment, are you sure you are sufficiently well to present the paper?’ she said.
‘I’m ready,’ I said. And I didn’t realise until that moment, but I was. I had the paper written and I was so tired any scrap of nerves had vanished. ‘Is the conference still going ahead?’
‘Yes, why wouldn’t it?’
‘The computers-’ I looked around me at the computer lab. Each one of the monitors was on as normal, waiting for login. The one on my desk was working. My laptop was off, but I knew if I turned it on, it would boot up as normal. While I was out they must have all rebooted. Whatever the virus was, it had gone. If it had ever been there in the first place. I was doubting myself now.
Elaine said some more things and I phased in and out. Reality seemed so distant.
No matter. Phaethon Labs would judge my fate. If it pleased them, I could move onto a job in their labs and advance quickly. If it didn’t, well, I wouldn’t work in AI research again. Not counting all the professors and experts who were coming today. First impressions count, especially in academia. I had to go out and deliver the paper. I had to, even if my stupid body was almost on the verge of collapse.
The morning blurred together. I don’t know where I was. At times it was like I was watching my body from the outside. At other times the noise and the chatter was suddenly overwhelming and the colours were too vivid, too intense. At all times the ringing in my ears drowned out my comprehension. For some reason Eoin was there, smirking away. I couldn’t deal with him. I even zoned out during the keynote. I’d been looking forward to that for months.
My afternoon session came round too soon. I found myself at the podium, the paper loaded up on my laptop in front of me. I had no memory of turning it on. My hands shook. The terminal with the program was plugged into the projector, ready for a live demonstration. My heart lurched. I knew it wouldn’t do anything and I would be laughed out of the sector. The room was spinning fast now, I was caught in a whirling maelstrom. The words swam and spun in front of me. I could barely focus on them.
Without looking up at the audience in front of me, I took a deep breath and started to read.