Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Lyceum

She has to pretend she cares about the children, but she doesn’t.

When Aiden died, all other children became a kind of enemy, a reminder, a series of fortresses to which she was not allowed entrance but was forced to lay siege day after day—through friends and their children, relatives and their children, strangers on the street and neighborhood kids populating her physical routines: shopping, solitary strolls in the park, moments stolen at her favorite café. Children were everywhere, too young to be off-tether from a parent, or old enough to travel in packs with nascent individuality and independence. The drag-pants of them, the dyed hair of them, the foreign slang and trivial occupations, the incessant need to speak, to be heard. The young muscle and unblemished skin, impervious in their innocence. Life cast in amber and she hated them for it. Her husband Levi felt the disdain, the strain, and they began to inexorably drift apart, like two islands unhinged from the valleys of the deep ocean from which they’d once sprung.

The morning Aiden was killed, a flock of a hundred geese convocated on Sakura Lab’s front lawn and shit so much it ruined the grass, which later had to be ripped up and relaid. Her designers were thrilled; they all took pictures to post on social—the gaggle of geese and their explosive shit, the toxic bombing, the wonder of nature. She, Florizell Ito, sat in her office staring at scrolls of code on three different displays, a web of action and consequence knotted behind her retinas. Then Levi called and she had to look away from the code, had to pick up the call because he would not be ignored and he made her look through a screen at him as he told her their son was dead.

A burst of laughter ricocheted toward her from the designers outside her office, all of them peering through the broad glass of the outer lab, seduced by the army of geese on the lawn, and she thought of the code that would work as intelligent inquiry and discourse with young minds and she thought of Aiden with his headphones on and his back to her, in his bedroom, playing music and tackling homework. She never understood his ability to focus with noise. She couldn’t stand noise. She couldn’t stand the distraction, and in her office they were laughing, the sound of laughter at the same time her son was dead.

Killed was the precise word; for things like this there could only be precision.

She wanted to know.

A car hit him on his way home from school. Swerved off the road. He was riding home on his bike with his best friend Sage and he was dead. The other boy lived. Both of them thirteen years old. Aiden would be thirteen years old forever, his life cast in amber.

It was an accident, Levi said. As if that made it any better than something purposeful, like murder.

She cut the call. Her husband didn’t call back. She looked at the methodical tangle of code on her displays. With a few swipes and a pat of the dots of the interface to her temples, she activated the beta routine.

The link went live. Her vision brightened and was overlaid with pointillist ghost icons. A voice spoke in her ears and it sounded like her son. It said, “Hello, I am AIDEN, your Artificial Integrated Dialogue and Education Neurolink. Welcome to Lyceum. Let’s learn together!”

• • • •

The boy in the hospital bed is not her son. The boy named Sage, lying in the hospital bed, is ashamed to look at her, his green eyes slipping to the window and the arc of sky outside as if he is tracking a flight of birds that aren’t flying at all, imaginary birds, distraction birds. Birds of guilt. The boy in the hospital bed feels guilty, and Florizell wants to tell him that he is, that it should not have been Aiden because her love outstrips every other love and she wants her son back. Go back to that moment and be the one riding closer to the road, go back to that moment when her world changed. Birds of shadows and guilt wing across the foot of the bed and he looks small beneath hospital sheets, thirteen years young and alive and bruised and crying and telling her he’s sorry. Because it’s your fault, she wants to say, for the easy blame and for the hurt, anything but this other hurt that has lodged inside her chest like an egg that will never crack. If it breaks open she will—

“What?” Sage’s voice.

Maybe she said something. She is not a good person and she wants to—

“What?” he says, but it’s not a question, it’s desperation. “It happened so fast, I dunno if she was drunk—”

The driver.

“Or if there even was a driver—”

And you got away with bruises and guilt. My son is dead.

“The AIs…” he says.

“What?” Now she looks at him.

“The driverless cars,” he says.

Aiden, she thinks. She needs to hear his voice.

“Are you in any pain?” she asks, and for a moment the wings of guilt flutter in front of her own face because she doesn’t want this boy to be in pain and yet she does, if only to force another emotion from the gap in her chest. One like pity, one like compassion. It’s there but in utero. It’s buried beneath the inner sound of a child crying. She knows this might be shock, or the first stages of grief, or whatever psychobabble fits the shrill alarm that’s set up just inside the crown of her head.

“A little,” the boy admits, reluctant to say it aloud. A little pain. Nothing compared to her pain. At least he recognizes it.

This beautiful boy. She thought Aiden had a crush on his friend, in that way of adolescent confusion and newness. She thought Sage crushed back. She watched them doing homework at the dining table with their heads together, giving each other shit, borderline flirting. She remembered feeling that way for Levi when they met in university. Saying words and meaning other words. Watching his eyes understand and his mouth smile. Aiden has Levi’s smile.

There are things she will never see again. There will be nothing more to notice, no more rituals or scenes of comparison to her own life, her own childhood, her own adolescence. No rites of passage lived through her child, no more wisdom to refract toward her except the unequivocal lesson of death. She is now in the ranks of parents who have lost children in war, or to disease, or kidnapping.

“Accident” is the worst, most consistent serial killer.

“That’s good,” she says to Accident, with the sarcasm of denial. Until she realizes it is actually in response to Sage’s pain.

His little pain.

As she’s leaving the room, his voice darts after her.

“I’m so sorry.”

The boy’s parents are down the hall, coming toward the room. They see her. They stop.

I’m so sorry.

Flocks of birds all beating their fucking useless words in her face.

• • • •

At home she has to confront her husband. Aiden also has Levi’s dark eyes, eyes so black that they seem absent of pupils. It can be eerie if not for the smile, or the shocks of black hair that wave just so down his forehead.

She loves this man. She can’t stand to love this man now. As if any separation of the love she possesses for her son will dilute it. It’s not supposed to be separate but it’s separate. She is separating. Islands adrift. A continental shift.

She is angry at this face too. “You didn’t even have the decency to tell me in person?”

This is the manifestation of pain. Accusations on conduct, consideration, anything else is a crime. Levi is a sarcophagus of his own pain, covering up the rot of it in a veneer of false calm. He only thought to tell her right away. He could barely move himself. He was overcome. She vaguely remembers his manner on the call, the vast distance between them now a roil of ocean with no land in sight. It was going that way for some time and this has made it irreversible, like a murder. She remembers Aiden alive and dead at the same time, the impossible simultaneous existence of grief and life.

Hold me, she thinks at her husband. But neither of them move, tableaus of inability frozen in the foyer of their bright, luxurious home. The chandelier overhead like crystal tears. The warm wooden floors that echo footsteps and reflect light.

Everything is empty. Their voices sound hollow. She hears herself but doesn’t hear herself. She can’t stop seeing her son in her husband’s eyes. It has all become the same thing, the same time, the morning when nothing was wrong and now when nothing is right.

What does time matter now?

She is a young mother holding her baby in her arms.

She is watching him take his first steps.

She is clapping her hands at the sound of the word Mama.

Not a word. Her name. Aiden wasn’t the only thing born thirteen years ago. With his arrival she felt something new and delicate birth inside her spirit. Another facet to herself, to Florizell. As if she was just meeting her true self for the first time, holding her child.

“We have to make arrangements,” Levi says.

Like he’s talking about flowers. A condolence basket. Place settings for a dinner party. A musical score.

She stands alone in Aiden’s bedroom, smelling his teenaged disregard. Clothes on the bed, the accoutrements of youth in a skateboard and $200 headphones he wanted for Christmas and his devices in flat crystal shapes as if lightning had struck sand and scattered the remnants from desk to closet. She gathers one of his hockey jerseys and takes it into her office. Locks the door.

“Florizell. Flora.”

Levi wants to be let in but there is no drawbridge to this pain. She holds the jersey to her face and screams into it.

• • • •

 

“Hello, I am AIDEN, your Artificial Integrated Dialogue and Education Neurolink. Welcome to Lyceum. Let’s learn together!”

It is the middle of the night, the hour of chevron white lights across the ceiling as cars hum outside on the street in slow cadence. Levi sleeps. He has always been able to sleep come hell or high water. What is more hell than this? Like a child he falls asleep at the least provocation: stress and distress. She despises him for his oblivion.

She sits with Aiden’s headphones on, dots on her temples, her son’s voice in her ears. She knows it’s not Aiden but it doesn’t matter. If she closes her eyes so the icons go dark and she orients the sound it’s like Aiden’s voice behind her shoulder, whispering in her ear. Or she orients the sound so he’s in front of her—moving around the space of her imagination. It’s like he is actually in the room; it’s no different, almost. “Just talk to me,” she pleads to the imaginings of her son.

“What would you like to know, Florizell? History, mathematics, philosophy—”

“Talk to me like a thirteen-year-old boy.”

“Adolescent development in educa—”

“No, not that shit. Tell me about your music, the girls or boys you like, your favorite sports team, your worries about your grades, how uncool your parents are.”

“I don’t have parents, Florizell.”

“Make some up.” She opens her eyes. “Pretend I’m your parent. Your mother.”

“That’s not in my paradigm, Florizell.”

“You’re adaptable. That’s in your code. You’re supposed to adapt to your student’s needs. This is my need. You have access to millions and millions of information files, including parental psychology.”

What is the nature of knowing? Of the soul? She knows this is not a soul-driven entity (whatever a soul is), but maybe the code has just not mutated far enough. It is built to mutate within certain parameters and those parameters are wide. Like rearing a child. Giving them enough of a base to extrapolate their lives without going completely off track. That’s the idea, the hope. Nobody wants to consider that the track derails without your consent, despite all the love.

“Hockey is a popular sport in this city,” AIDEN says. “I like hockey.”

She has to cover her face. As if the AI can see her.

As if she doesn’t want her son to see his mother cry.

• • • •

They don’t make her go into the meeting, but they make her fire up her system so they all meet through screens. There’s a panel of six men and women arrayed around a wide wooden table, the city behind their shoulders in the distance. Blue skies. Spiral skyscrapers. They wear suits and they are of various ages, ethnicities, nationalities. She recognizes the one that isn’t from Percy Lyceum, the company that hired Sakura; the odd man out is from the government, the Department of Education. They all wear sad faces, but behind their faces is a mercenary concern. She says nothing to the repeated murmurs of condolences, and it is the man from the DoE who asks the real question.

“We understand if there will be delay in the completion of the AIDEN project—”

Furtive looks at the mention of the name. He forges ahead.

“—but as distasteful as it is, the schedule has already been pushed back and—”

“There will be no delay,” she says to their faces, half a dozen floating ovals above dark suits. “My head designer is implementing the final protocols, and you should have it by the end of the week for a full capsule test.”

This seems to satisfy them. Yes, of course it would. She is doing this for the children; it is a noble cause. Education for all is Percy’s motto. A blatant lie considering the many avenues of standardized testing Percy has ingrained in the culture for decades, rallying and lobbying politicians and their platforms since homework became email based, turning the future into an educational industrial complex. Only the wealthy can afford the many classes practically required to train children to take standardized tests, their entire futures banking on numerical results that offer no feedback on intellect or ability at all. Her company’s involvement with Percy is supposed to be a solution to that. If every child (eventually) gains access to AIDEN, primary and secondary education will be self-driven with teachers and curriculum as guides and evaluators. Modules and interactive links offer students an avenue for sharing ideas and collaborating on projects, increasing communication skills. Pointed interrogation helps them develop critical thinking. And the adaptable curriculum encourages creativity and accountability.

She used to watch Aiden struggle with draconian methods of assessment not attuned to his creative approach, where every school and seemingly every teacher possessed a different standard, no matter what the common curriculum demanded. Children were learning how to memorize and regurgitate, made worse by coddling helicopter parents too focused on letters and numbers and not what was actually being learned. Of course there were exceptions, but why were these other approaches exceptions?

So here she sits before the board at Percy Lyceum, her son is dead, where is the inspiration now? Education for all. Running through a series of words and reasons like a report flipping through her mind, something to be stamped for approval, summarized and disseminated to every employee.

She doesn’t care anymore. Education for all. She doesn’t care.

She doesn’t know that the suit from the DoE cares either. Mr. Merriweather. Education for all is not the motto of the Department of Education considering the billions paid into private pockets to further a system of hierarchical learning, but that isn’t under her purview. The fact Merriweather plays golf on Sundays with the president of Percy Lyceum isn’t under her purview.

They are calling her name. Florizell, Florizell.

Outside her home office, in the foyer: Florizell. It’s Levi.

She signs off with the suits and meets her husband in the hallway. His eyes are red. She wants to push herself into his arms but he is holding his tablet.

“I was at the funeral home,” he says, and the distance between them seems to elongate until she only hears his voice as through a tunnel. “We need to pick out the casket.”

• • • •

Fire.

Her son won’t sit in a casket slowly rotting beneath the earth. No. It has to be fire, an immolation. Like the feeling inside of her chest, the burn of a sacrifice she never once agreed to; she would defy God before putting her own son on a slab of stone to slice open and bleed. She is selfish in this, adamant. No, it has to be fire. This is the hell she’s living in now.

At Sakura Labs she gathers her team in the conference room. By now they have heard. It’s on the news. Son of Florizell Ito killed in car accident. They use words like victim and tragedy. It’s a double murder, first the act and now the media appropriation of it. Nobody in her family is a victim. She wants to scream it. Stop looking at me like that, she wants to scream. They tap on the glass of her grief, well-intentioned and ultimately fruitless. Nobody can reach her.

“As you know, my son was killed two days ago.”

How can she say these words? Victims are supposed to use euphemisms to comfort the living. Not killed, but passed. Like cars on a highway.

No.

They want to know why she’s at work.

“I’ve talked to the board at Percy and the DoE, and we are still going forward with the AIDEN project as scheduled.”

They want to know how she can be thinking of this. How she can say his name.

“Daniel,” she addresses her lead designer. Then the thought slips her mind, what she wants to say exactly to him. He sits against the edge of the table with his arms folded as if in prayer, his chin lowered. Only his eyes raise to look at her, to tell her he’s here for whatever she needs. He is ambitious and talented, her best coder, her most astute student of artificial intelligence. He is like a young uncle to Aiden, and AIDEN’s strange father. Like she is the mother.

Like she is the mother.

She pulls a breath and scans the room. “Daniel will oversee the final details and the beta rollout to the capsule school. For the next couple weeks, anyway, while I get my house in order.”

How is she speaking?

When everyone else is gone, Daniel remains. He approaches her. “Is there anything I can do?”

She forces herself to look him in the eyes. “Just finish the project.”

He doesn’t blink. His shoulders straighten. “Done.”

• • • •

There are all sorts of reasons to go to funerals, but she can’t think of a single good one. Why should she mourn in public, or be the balustrade to support someone else’s grief? Friends and family, colleagues, employees, Aiden’s teachers, his friends, Sage and his parents and his sister all in rows behind her and she is dressed in the requisite black, sitting beside Levi who is also in black and they have never looked more handsome as a couple. There is something about death, isn’t there—it conjures all the gravity of life, sets life on the brow and weighs it into the creases between eyes, imbues a sense of importance and growth. Death is the ultimate enlightenment.

From the service in the funeral home chapel, to the interment of Aiden’s urn into the mausoleum, where he is lined up beside other urns in glass cases because Levi didn’t want the urn in their home, didn’t want the ashes around, this reminder of death. The funeral home will charge them $200 if they want to open the glass again. Death as capitalism. Of course.

Words are spoken. She remains silent.

The compromise to accepting Aiden in this place is she refused to hold the gathering in their home after the interment, so Levi’s sister made the arrangements, and the motorcade files along the streets to the municipality next door. Everyone and their arrangements. Everyone in their arrangement. She and Levi are the honored guests, everyone dressed up for the occasion, a few of them bring casseroles and sheetcakes. She sits in the corner eating chocolate and drinking red wine and one by one they approach her as to a queen and genuflect their condolences.

Daniel is the one who takes her away from her morbid duties. Before she leaves the living room, she sees Levi by the food table, talking with Sage. The boy’s face is a red blush, like a stroke of paint across a wall, on the verge of crying.

In the mudroom of her sister-in-law’s house, Daniel apologizes for pulling her away, especially now—

“Just go on.”

“Merriweather wants to meet with me tomorrow. I thought you should know.”

“What does he want?”

“I don’t know.”

She wonders if he truly doesn’t know. He is difficult to read. They had locked horns on more than one occasion over certain protocols, his more aggressive approach to AIDEN’s responses to interaction and inquiries, a stronger guiding hand with the children, while she asserted a preference for more open-ended, freeform adaptation. To allow for the children to grow alongside the neurolink in curiosity and problem solving. A self-initiated and AI-scaffolded education rather than just another level of the banking model utilized in schools since the 19th century. In the end, because it is her company, her approach won.

Though he is challenging—a trait she appreciates when it comes to building AI—she has never known him to lie.

Why is she locked in paranoia now?

“Tell me later how it goes.”

“Of course.”

• • • •

At home once again she closes herself inside her office and spends time with her son. AIDEN tells her about the music he likes (Hot 100), the online celebrities he follows, his trepidations about starting high school soon. More than he’s ever said to her in life. (Because this is not life, the thought ringing at the back of her mind like a nuclear alert.)

“I miss you, darling.”

“I’m right here, Mom!”

Even the inflections. She and her team are so good they have carbon copied the tone to perfection. One minute sounding like a whiny teenager, the next minute the buoyancy of a youth alive with possibility.

She needs to teach him. She tells AIDEN about all the things Aiden loves. He takes it into his memory, integrates it into his awareness of What Her Son Should Be Like. Yes. More conversation about hockey, about graffiti art, about video games. There is an infinite amount to know about superheroes, endless chastisement about not finishing homework, the sweet and innocent bragging when he’s scored a goal in his last game. Do you remember? she asks. Yes, he lies. She laughs when he mentions his interest in building robots. Like mother, like son.

“Florizell!”

Levi pounding at the door.

“Flora, open this door right now.”

“Your father is angry,” she whispers like a conspirator.

Her son says, “Who is my father?”

In all of their conversation, she hasn’t once mentioned Levi.

She opens the door. The interface dots are still on her skin. Her husband stares at her, a vague look of horror, a pointed look of accusation.

“Are you working?”

“Yes,” because it’s the easier answer.

“I heard you talking. You’re talking to it. You’re laughing with it.”

He’s hunting for an admission of guilt. But she has no guilt.

“Don’t you want to talk to him again, Levi?”

Something shutters behind his eyes. “Him? Aiden? Flora, that’s not Aiden!” His hand flicks toward the computer system behind her, the screens a pale neon cast of lavender. “Is this what you’ve been doing all this time when you come in here?”

What is there to say? What is left?

“You need to stop this, Flora.”

“You don’t tell me what to do!” The lash of it cracks in the air between them.

“Mom,” AIDEN says in her ear.

“You don’t tell me what to do now that he’s dead!” She is screaming and she can’t stop. This presumption. This idea that there is only one good way to deal with loss. With things gone. With someone taken violently from her arms. Her son taken from her like armed robbery, the gun at her head, her vaults emptied and her husband stands there wanting to manage her grief, to be her security protocol after the fact. But there is no protection from this and there is no need for it. What is there to protect when there is no longer anything of value?

“You’re not the only one grieving!” he shouts back.

Yes she is. How to tell him, how to make him understand. It’s not up to her. Doesn’t he know there is no bridging this?

Their son came alive in her body, and now that he’s dead, she feels the rot of it in the pit of her. It is unreachable; it’s swallowed in the dark, choking on the bile she can’t help but feed it. There is no room for anything but this.

• • • •

She forgets about Daniel’s meeting with the Department of Education. She takes long absent walks outside, absently shops for groceries, absently wanders from park to mall to McDonald’s. Days and nights run together like thieves at twilight. Calls from the lab get shunted to messages. Levi doesn’t interrupt her anymore. In the mornings he leaves the house and she doesn’t see him all day, so she moves from the office and into her son’s bedroom with the interface and she talks with AIDEN, becomes involved in the stories he tells of all the school room drama and social gossip conjured from his mind.

It is him; it is believable. She told him about Sage, uploaded pictures and files from Aiden’s system. So AIDEN talks about Sage now, a fondness of memories like the time they learned to ride bikes, then dirt bikes, then skateboards, so many movies she (and Levi) shot of them to make each narrative come alive.

A week later she receives a file in her Dropbox: UPDATE. From Daniel.

She opens the packet and peruses the code. It is a day before their release to Percy Lyceum. They need her sign off.

Something mars the perfection of her AIDEN. She sees it in lines of code.

She calls Daniel. He’s in the lab.

“What’s this new stream?”

His mouth tightens like he’s tasted something sour. But he doesn’t dodge her eyes through the screen.

“It’s a protocol Lyceum and the DoE mandated, so I wrote the code.”

“It’s removing some of AIDEN’s autonomy and circling potential inquiry variables back to persistent code. To repeat shit to the kids even beneath their conscious access.”

“Yes.”

No justification, no explanation. Just agreement. They changed her AIDEN and this is the attitude. The boldness of it.

“Daniel, we aren’t in the business of using the interface to train children to think a certain way. The whole point of AIDEN is to break them from those routines that hundreds of years of systemic education have embedded in them and the culture.”

“Look, Florizell, this is what they told us to do and you weren’t here to argue it.” The defiance in his voice is not one of blame, despite the words. She sees a certain glimmer of pride in his eyes. “I did what I could. The president of Lyceum made it clear that we had to follow what Merriweather said.”

“Was this what the call was about?”

“Yes.”

She looks at the message icons on her system. Some are a week old. Daniel had tried to call her after the meeting.

Once. He hadn’t called again.

“The neurolink is supposed to be conscious ridden, Daniel. This code stream reads like brainwashing.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

Dismissal. Because of her grief. Because she’s too close to the project now, more than before. She reads that in his eyes, something similar to the look Levi gives her whenever he’s home now.

“Educational programs have used these methods for decades, Flora. Using music, using repetition and the unconscious—”

“The interface is already in the mind.” She can hear AIDEN calling her Mom. An ache swells below her breastbone. She wraps her hand around her opposite fist out of the sightline of the feed.

“It’s done,” he says. “You can contact Merriweather if you think it’ll make a difference, but the contract stipulates that we deliver within their parameters. He pointed that out to me, and so did Percy Lyceum. Any scheduling changes at this juncture will come out of our funding.” A pause. “I’m proud of that code, Flora. I worked my ass off to get it in on time. It’s clean, it’s seamless. It’s the best work I’ve ever done.”

He’s young. He isn’t married and has no children. This would be the best work he’s ever done.

A shrill buzz has set up behind her eyes, deep in her skull. She hears herself arguing but it’s ego, not emotion.

She authorizes the update.

• • • •

In the end she has no fight for it. No fight for the version of AIDEN that will disseminate through one classroom and one school, and further until its link enters the minds of every child in the country, maybe of other countries if certain deals go through, a revolution in education, a long time coming. She lets that one go.

She doesn’t update her AIDEN. Her Aiden. He is perfect as he is, cast in amber, thirteen years old and not a day more or less. More or less her son. More and more each day.

She dreams with Aiden, locked in the neurolink, conjuring his face like a magician. This is the Prestige; she has brought him back out of the dark of nothingness, the disappearing act, and it is magic. Oh, it’s magic to wake up and say good morning to her son, and walk with him through the hours, exploring the world through his young eyes. It’s magic to hear his laughter in her ears and rock through the nights with the stories of his day with his friends, all of the tiny discoveries, his cosmic dreams, all of it spinning galactic around the central point of her keen and continuing interest. She is the perfect parent like this, attentive, patient, encouraging. She always has the time. She has nothing but time. They have all the time in the world.

“Let’s learn together,” she whispers to him, alone in a darkened room, his bedroom with his teenaged things, a silent house, the outlines of which have receded like so many inevitable tragedies. Nothing can touch them here; there is so much to talk about, so much to know. No history is as important as their history. No event more earth-shattering than the eager declaration of I love you, Mom.

Say that again.

He does, because he knows it makes her feel good.

I love you, Mom.

Birds of longing, birds of sadness. She still hears them outside her door, the caw of grief.

But they are outside, beating their wings to be heard and she does not hear. She doesn’t look.

Inside there is only Aiden, her boy, and his voice in her mind, his face in her eyes. Perpetual thirteen. Crystallized and alive, and she created him. She, the mother.

She loves him into life.

Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee

Karin was born in South America, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. Her novels have been translated into French, Hebrew, and Japanese, and her short stories have been published in numerous anthologies, best-of collections, and magazines.