Preview: Makeshift

Makeshift is a short story I wrote freshman year which recently received a National Gold Medal in Science Fiction/Fantasy writing from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. I am currently developing an extended version of the story as a novella, and I’m providing a short preview here for your enjoyment.

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The first thing that struck Ally about the room was that it was big. It was filled with long lab benches with complicated machinery Ally couldn’t begin to understand, where scientists worked diligently doing tasks she couldn’t begin to comprehend. But most surprisingly, metal humanoids strode robotically through the room, performing tasks which ranged from pouring coffee to offering insight on the scientists’ current projects. Ally had heard the rumors, that the NQQ had nearly perfected the first true AI, but seeing it was another thing.

“What do you think?” The voice made Ally jump. She turned cautiously towards the voice to see Dr. Argus, peering at her through the rectangular glasses which rested on his wrinkled face. Out of place on this vision of age and kindness was a thin scar running above his right eye. Ally tried not to stare, or to automatically pull back her lab coat sleeve and glance at her wrist, which seemed to burn in the awkwardness of this moment.

“Yes- yes, sir…” Ally stumbled over herself. “It’s incredible.”

“That it is,” Dr. Argus extended a hand, which she shook. “I am Dr. Argus, as I’m sure you’re aware. I am very happy to work with you on this project.”

Ally frowned. “Likewise, Doctor. But I’m afraid I don’t understand why I was chosen to work with you. My field of study isn’t robotics nor artificial intelligence.”

“I am aware of your qualifications, Ms. Fallows,” Dr. Argus smiled again, gesturing towards the rest of the room. “Walk with me.” She complied nervously. Her heartbeat was so loud, she could’ve sworn that everyone in the room could hear it. Dr. Argus continued, his voice warm and friendly as he explained to Ally. “We’re now producing individual robots with their own unique intelligence at a rate of about one every three months. However, there’s a kink in the process that none of my people have been able to work out.” They stopped in front of a thick door, that looked like the door of a bank vault. Ally tried not to think about what might be behind it. “When our robots are first created they go through a phase…. a sort of artificial puberty, if you will. They question their existence, our existence, the purpose of life. Now, what happens to them during this time is crucial. It determines whether or not they will accept their designated purpose and perform the job they were born for.”

“I see,” Ally mulled this over. “What happens if they don’t accept it?”

“They try to exterminate all humans and claim the world for robots,” Dr. Argus replied in a matter-of-fact voice. “We put them down, and we start again. However, those actions are both financially taxing and morally deplorable. We want another option. And that’s where you come in.” Ally swallowed. “My people have built a robot to test various tools for other robots, and he’s going through the phase right now. I need a fresh pair of eyes to observe the situation and offer ways to solve it, psychologically, biologically, and robotically speaking. In your file it said that you began majoring in Psychiatry before transferring to Engineering. That makes you the only talented engineer on staff with the necessary qualifications to take on this task. Are you interested?”

Ally’s gut instinct was to get far, far away from this extremely sketchy project. Dealing with possibly homicidal robots sounded unpleasant, not to mention unsafe. Not to mention the fact that she’d left the psychiatry field for a reason. But she knew that if she wanted to move up, she’d need to get on Dr. Argus’ good side. And what better way was there than this? “I certainly am,” Ally agreed, putting on her best fake smile. “How do I begin?”

Dr. Argus handed her a large manila folder. “This has all the specs on the R-Mark II in there, and all the models before that. This one is built from discarded pieces of earlier models for the explicit purpose of testing this adolescent stage, so he has aspects of several of our bot programs. He’s down the hall, good luck.” As the Doctor walked away, the door  opened, revealing a long, white hallway.

“Wait,” Ally frowned. “So do I just–?” Dr. Argus vanished into the sea of technicians, and Ally’s stomach turned. “Okay, I guess…”

Ally took a deep breath and started down this frighteningly monotonous path. She passed a sleek, silverish android, and Ally drew in a sharp breath as, for a moment, the two of them made eye contact. His eyes, glowing bluish dots on a smooth black facade, stared at her with a hollowness she had only seen in the mirror.

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