After laughing together about the impossible task that lie ahead of them in the plant-laden living room of Senga’s office, Senga offered Agnes and Ramona some coffee, in such a hilariously casual way that it was almost as if they were not plotting to take down the greatest super-computer that essentially ruled the planet.
Except, they were.
Agnes and Ramona accepted the coffee, and Senga stood up from her chair and went to the small refrigerator mounted at the back of the room, next to a large floor plant with palm leaves. Senga’s fingers tapped across the screen on the door of the refrigerator, and upon opening the door, three cups of coffee were inside, steam curling from them.
“Ahh, the smell of fresh coffee!” Senga remarked, and Ramona gently clapped her hands and perked up.
Senga handed out the mugs to the women, retaining one for herself, and she took her seat again.
“Thank you. This is exactly what I need,” Agnes said, blowing softly across the surface of her coffee, ripples gliding upon the deep brown liquid.
Senga nodded. “Me, too. I have a long night ahead of me. I’m sure Ramona’s told you that tomorrow is our day of action?”
Agnes blew again on her coffee, and her eyebrows frowned. “Actually, I don’t know what you mean by that.”
Fidgeting in her seat on the foot rest, Ramona set her mug down on the floor beside her and scratched at her head, fluffing her curly Mohawk a little. “Yeah, I didn’t get around to that,” she admitted. “Plus, there was a lot of stuff I wasn’t sure if I should tell her. Confidential stuff.”
Senga nodded, and Agnes looked between the two of them curiously, wondering how this mysterious event would affect her, and where she would find herself next. Day of action—-was that the Slanted soldier equivalent of Labor Day?
“Well, tomorrow is the day we take down the Slantian empire,” Senga said, tilting her mug slightly and sipping just a few droplets of her coffee. The steam from the mug brushed by her face and dissipated.
“Doesn’t that sound so badass when she says it?” Ramona commented, shaking her head and beaming at Senga.
With a smirk, Senga continued. “It’s been a long time coming, though. It’s not been easy. About ten years ago, we made the breakthrough discovery that Slantia was essentially an AI. This is something that even the leaders of Slantia don’t know—-they think that all their decisions are the result of their own intelligence and self-interest, but all of it is informed by this highly advanced computer that influences them in subtle yet powerful ways. It has effectively brainwashed Slantia.” Senga took a moment to sip her coffee again, closing her eyes as she did. “You know whose idea it was to employ humans to do the work of machines? The government was on board with it because it meant that the citizens kept busy, were off the streets, could be accounted for. But it was a move to enslave humans through systematic justifications. And whose idea was it to start implanting nano-DNA in humans? Mmm-hmm, you can already guess. It was so the computer could understand human emotions and manipulate their thoughts better.”
“Wow,” Agnes mumbled. She set her own mug of coffee carefully on her knee, floating her hands around either side of it so that it wouldn’t fall, but so that her palms could cool down from the hot ceramic.
“There are many things that link directly to the existence of this AI. We call it The Slant, this super-computer. We were quite discouraged when we discovered it, because the nature of its programming is that it is constantly feeding on data, learning and growing. Whereas humans take what information we can and draw conclusions from it, our brains are limited and can’t increase in capacity. At some point, we max out. Our perspective has an end point. But artificial intelligence…” Senga stopped and sighed. “Artificial intelligence has no limits. If it meets its capacity, it finds alternatives. It’s not bound by the laws of nature; it can process in multiple dimensions at once and link all those data points together to draw conclusions so advanced that it seems purely nonsensical to us. It’s the greatest problem-solver and strategist in the galaxy. That’s why AI is so powerful. It can surpass its maker.”
The mug began to burn Agnes’s knee, as the heat spread through her pants, and Agnes lifted it from her leg and held it again in her hands. “But who created The Slant? And why?”
“We don’t really know,” Senga confessed, sipping again on her coffee. The light on her wrist watch lit up as she slowly drank, but she didn’t notice it, or ignored it.
Ramona chimed in, “Well actually we do kind of suspect that it was launched as a tactic to persuade voters, sometime a long time ago. The AI was supposed to infiltrate peoples’ online profiles and learn about human emotions and interest patterns, and then use the collected data to influence how people vote. It just got out of hand. And now it’s just gaining power and ruining lives and singlehandedly holds the fate of most of the planet in its mechanical clutches.” She balled her fists in front of her in visible displeasure.
Senga nodded to Ramona’s point. “Well, yes, that is the most common and widely accepted theory. The Slant is practically connected across the globe and has satellites in space, so we must be very deliberate and careful,” Senga said. She took her final sip of her coffee and placed the mug on an end table beside her chair. Agnes looked down at her own full cup of coffee, which was still too hot for her to drink.
“If we make a wrong move, The Slant will know what we’re up to and will quickly and skillfully combat us,” Ramona added.
Agnes fidgeted with her mug again and asked Senga, “So what is your plan? I would really love to help in any way.”
Ramona got off her foot rest and sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, pushing the foot rest away from her to give her room. She found the mug she had set on the floor next to her and took a few gulps from it.
“Unfortunately, Agnes, there is nothing you can do to help us.” Senga scratched her cheek with a finger and looked earnestly at Agnes. “We have been training for a long time, and we’re prepared to do whatever’s necessary tomorrow to ensure that Slantia—-and The Slant—-is once and for all removed from power.”
A little bit at a loss for words, Agnes insisted. “Surely, there is something… I can do… to help.” She was now a part of this great cause; Agnes was eager to prove her allegiance.
Senga slowly shook her head. “Really, dear Agnes, that’s kind of you. I certainly appreciate it, but you have done enough. We’re going to be okay, and most of all, I’ll just need you to take it easy and stay safe. You don’t have to worry about this.”
“But, I can do anything you want, no matter how small or big. Like, if you need me to clean things, or watch satellites, or…” Agnes trailed off as she realized she had no idea what roles a global coup necessitated. She had no training flying space ships, she was not in any physical state to be doing arm-to-arm combat, and she wasn’t particularly studied in the fields of science, math, or technology. She just really knew how to wash dishes.
Ramona interjected. “Agnes, you’ve spent your whole life working! Take a few days off. You’re retired, remember?” Ramona took another gulp of her coffee and smiled at Agnes.
“Yes, but…” Agnes felt more emotions churning inside her, and she did her best to stomach them. Work was how Agnes felt self-worth; it was how she found purpose among everything she didn’t understand. Despite everything she had learned that day, it was still difficult for her to shake that deeply internalized desire to be useful to something bigger than she was. Especially after learning that her life’s work was supportive of a corrupt regime, she was desperate to make amends and right her wrongs. This was how she felt she could truly repent.
“Sister, just drink your coffee and enjoy it,” Senga softly said.
Agnes paused, then obliged, tasting the sweet, bitter flavor of coffee pour over her taste buds and warm her insides. It was still hot, but her mouth wasn’t burned by it.
“Agnes, one of the things I have learned over the years is that sometimes, we can’t be the hero. Sometimes, we’re not the hero, we’re not the supporting cast, and heck—-sometimes, we’re not even in the audience at all.” Senga re-positioned herself in her chair, shifting weight; the sound of Ramona gulping down the last bit of her coffee practically echoed throughout the room during this pause. Senga glanced at Ramona and chuckled; Ramona shrugged.
Senga continued. “Ego can be our sourest weakness. All our life, we seek purpose, or meaning. Some of us even seek greatness. It inflates our ego and and gives us that boost of self-importance for the time being, until the next deficiency in meaning. We go throughout life like this, making ourselves deeply unhappy because we’re always craving for something more, something to make us feel special and like our existence isn’t an accident.”
Not quite sure where Senga was going with this, Agnes listened anyway, trying to open herself up to her message and feeling some sort of a connection to her words. Even though they were the same age, Agnes acknowledged that Senga might truly have some helpful wisdom to share, and forced herself not to feel spiteful or defensive about her twin sister’s tendency to lecture.
“But life goes on with or without us, and we may never have a grand moment of glory, we may just have a grand mistaken moment that we learn from, and that’s okay. It’s about the little moments along the way, and it’s about watching the stars go by or enjoying a cup of coffee. I want you to know it’s perfectly okay to just ‘be.’ You don’t have to do anything. You can just be here, and that’s enough.”
“Besides, Agnes, you had the silvovia! We’re going to use that tomorrow,” Ramona said. “That’s important!”
Senga nodded, then looked at her watch for a moment. She returned her attention to the women. “The silvovia is very essential. China knew what they were doing when they introduced that as a weapon against Slantia.” Her watch made a noise, and she looked at it again.
“Well, I’m glad that I was able to at least do that much,” Agnes said. “Even though I had no idea. I thought it was just a fork,” she chuckled. Her face fell after a moment, and she tried to let go of the feelings of inadequacy and guilt for not contributing to what would hopefully be Slantia’s end.
“Much more than a fork,” Senga said. “Now, I’m so sorry, but I’m really late for my next meeting, and unfortunately I can’t postpone it any longer.” She stood up, brushing herself off, and put her hands over her heart, looking longingly at Agnes. “Agnes, thank you so much for meeting me. It has been a true honor to finally be able to embrace you as my own.”
Agnes set her mug down and stood up as well, with a little effort, because she had been sitting for a while. The sisters hugged, Agnes much more of a participant in this embrace than their first.
“Ramona, we’ll be in touch,” Senga said curtly, with a wink, after separating herself from Agnes. “You ladies can stay as long as you like!” Senga added over her shoulder, as she briskly exited through the sliding door, which closed behind her.
The two of them looked at each other, in Senga’s absence.
“Well, that was Senga,” Ramona said, putting up her hands and smiling.
“Quite a woman,” Agnes commented, still standing, looking around them. “What happens to me now? Since I’ve already fulfilled my purpose…” Agnes’s demeanor slouched a little, expressing her feelings of defeat.
“Now, you can hang out!” Ramona declared, as though it were obvious. “I’m going to put you up at my place for a while until you get comfortable around here. Tonight I have meetings and some last-minute training as well, but what’s mine is yours.” She nodded to Agnes, who seemed to exhale in relief, and Ramona put away their mugs in the sink by the refrigerator before they departed Senga’s office.
Ramona’s room was like the space ship version of an attic bedroom.
First of all, Ramona and Agnes had to ride an incredibly reaching elevator that ascended for several minutes before they arrived at Ramona’s floor. Then, after traveling down a hallway for quite a while, they came to a door which led to a Slanted Soldiers boarding house, full of many cluttered rooms, clothes, gadgets, and food scattered thoroughly, and a dozen humans and aliens reading on tablets, or eating, or conversing with one another. Ramona greeted them all, but they passed by relatively briefly, everyone seeming to have their greatest attention directed elsewhere, beyond the boarding house.
Then, within the residency, Ramona and Agnes took another elevator to the top, where they stepped out and into Ramona’s room.
Out of all the beautiful rooms Agnes had been in that day, this one was by far her favorite. It was an immaculate expression of Ramona’s personality, and interwoven among it all were the threads of her parents’ legacy. True to tradition, Ramona’s room was populated excessively by plant life. Potted plants on the floor and on dressers, hanging plants suspended by elegant macrame rope, plants snaking around the wooden beams of the exposed wooden raptors, vines coating patches of the walls like quilt squares. It was a large room, although just a spacious bedroom with a lofted bed. The main level had a couch and a screen upon the wall, along with dressers and a table. A ladder was propped up against the wall on the right, and if climbed, it would lead to the lofted platform upon which was Ramona’s bed. The ceiling was predominantly obscured by leafy coverage, and Agnes swore she saw a bird rustle through the canopy.
“This is just… Incredible,” Agnes said, looking around the room in awe. She took a deep, refreshing inhale and felt emboldened by it, like how she had in the space ship—-refreshed.
“Thank you,” Ramona said, smiling proudly at her home. “And help yourself to anything.” Then she quickly walked over to a jacket that was lying on the hard floor and picked it up, tossing it in a wardrobe near her. She went to her desk and straightened out her tablets and styluses, which were haphazardly strewn across the surface. Ramona continued to tidy, while Agnes slowly observed her surroundings, the high ceilings, the purifying oxygen, the decorative, mid-sized statues of mythical figures.
“It’s funny seeing you fuss over how clean your room is,” Agnes commented, glancing at Ramona pick up some wrappers from her couch and toss them in a waste basket.
Ramona gave a laugh, eyes still focused on cleaning. “Well, I also have to check everything out to make sure I don’t have anything dangerous or private out in the open.” She shot a mischievous look to Agnes, who only shook her head and smiled. “Of course, I’ll also set you up a bed down here, since, you know, the ladder is probably kind of a challenge.”
Now it was Agnes’s turn to burst out with a laugh at Ramona’s blunt remark. Even rude and blunt as it was, it made Agnes giggle and she enjoyed the banter. Most other people, if they had poked fun at her like that, it may have truly bothered her, but there was something she so liked about Ramona’s quirky soul, that her teasing always felt friendly, and never mean-spirited.
The two arranged some of Ramona’s belongings to accommodate Agnes—-well, Agnes suggested and Ramona did any heavy lifting. They set up a spare bed Ramona had tucked away in a massive closet, and put it beside the couch so Agnes could watch the screen for entertainment. “I have cable,” Ramona joked, something that neither of them had ever used, but it was a common joke to refer to notably outdated screen shows as “cable.”
When Ramona was getting ready to leave for a meeting and a training session just an hour later, Agnes stopped her to pry a little more information. She finally asked the question that she hadn’t quite gotten an answer to earlier.
“Ramona, will you please tell me how you all plan to stop this ‘Slant’ computer?” Agnes was sitting on the couch in a change of clothes—-an extra-large t-shirt Ramona had somewhat scandalously “borrowed” from a rather tall co-worker and a pair of pink sweatpants—-and Agnes had just started the first episode of a popular alien drama show.
Having slipped on her boots as Agnes asked this, Ramona stood up and approached the couch from behind, leaning over the back of it. Agnes turned around and looked up at Ramona, who seemed to become stoic.
Ramona sighed. “We have to destroy… Everything,” she said, a solemn statement. She looked ashamed to admit it, but didn’t try to hold it back.
“What? What do you mean?” Agnes turned and paused the show so she could hear every word Ramona spoke next.
“I mean… We have to use the silvovia to burn the planet. It creates an explosive current that will destroy The Slant and the materials it uses to distribute itself and retain its ‘life.’ Afterwards, when we’re sure it’s bleeped out of existence, we’ll flood the planet so it may still go on,” Ramona said, softly. She sort of sank into the couch’s cushion, her weight heavy upon it.
“But what about…” Agnes trailed off again, thinking about all the people who would lose their lives in the destruction, for the price of peace from this mechanical god.
Ramona explained, anticipating Agnes’s biggest concern, “We’ve been extracting real humans for a while. We’ve been bringing them here, and distributing across the solar system to other Slanted Satellite bases. We’ve been doing our best, Agnes, but the only way to stop this thing and save the planet is by being large about it.”
Agnes looked down at a stain on the pink sweatpants she wore.
“That’s the ugliness of war. No one wins,” Ramona said, still quite somber, and standing up. She pushed her hair back, petting her hand upon it while her eyes distanced themselves from her surroundings.
“I’m sorry,” said Agnes. She began to think of how Ramona felt, probably ready for an end to the regime that murdered her parents when she was a child, and the regime that kidnapped her, traumatized her, and lied to her about her existence.
“It’s okay,” Ramona said, returning to herself. “We’re doing our best. We will rebuild the earth, after it is done. Our plants will repopulate the earth, and we’ll do better.”
The two exchanged a meaningful gaze, one which commiserated about the inherent fallout of war, greed, and power, and which caught up all the beautiful, lively souls suffering in the middle of it.
Then Ramona left for her appointments, and Agnes was left by herself in Ramona’s rather garden-ly room, watching alien shows to get her mind off her own crazy day and snacking on Ramona’s broccoli chips. With the container still in her hand and a couple of those chips scattered upon the blanket that wrapped itself around Agnes, she fell to sleep, dozing off on her body’s own terms, and it wasn’t until much later that evening, and in fact much later that night, that Ramona finally slipped into the room, checking on Agnes, stripping out of her work clothes, and slipping immediately to bed.
It would be an important day when they awoke.
Read Part X of the “I Fuel the Great Machine” series next Friday!