Issue 1.3. “Massively Open,” by Maria Sachiko Cecire

Orig­i­nal art by Aaron Tay­lor-Wald­man.

05:47 Stu­dent #125AY4708 T9C5036S214 Peer Moti­va­tor 66B “Lucy” Con­tact ERROR
05:47 Stu­dent #139PD0371 T9C5036S214 Peer Moti­va­tor 66B “Dar­nell” Con­tact ERROR
05:47 Stu­dent #152IJ2230 T9C5036S214 Peer Moti­va­tor 66B “Lucy” Con­tact ERROR
05:47 Stu­dent #166LL2174 T9C5036S214 Peer Moti­va­tor 66B “Lucy” Con­tact ERROR
05:47 Stu­dent #170QR9973 T9C5036S214 Peer Moti­va­tor 66B “Sean” Con­tact ERROR
05:47 Stu­dent #172MX6184 T9C5036S214 Peer Moti­va­tor 66B “Dr. Li” Con­tact ERROR

The error mes­sages rolled down Zoe’s screen, a steady stream of bro­ken.

You’ve got to be kid­ding,” she mut­tered, swip­ing through error lines for what looked like almost all 3,496 stu­dents in her sec­tion of the course. The Peer Moti­va­tor soft­ware was glitch­ing again, which meant that the indi­vid­u­al­ly tai­lored mes­sages of encour­age­ment and les­son progress reminders weren’t queu­ing up. That meant they wouldn’t ping the stu­dents’ devices at the times they’d each be most recep­tive to inter­ven­tion or even, from the looks of things, go out at all. Zoe cursed and opened a mes­sage box. She hadn’t even had her cof­fee yet.

C5036S214LeadZOE: Ford, it’s me. None of the PeeMo pings went out this morn­ing. How long will they be down? We have an assign­ment due this week.
AITech089FORD: work­ing on it. For some rea­son only the Emilys are still work­ing
C5036S214ZOE: Is even that pos­si­ble?
AITech089FORD: appar­ent­ly
AITech089FORD: the techs from SA17 and SA3 told me it hap­pened in a few of their cours­es 2 days ago
C5036S214LeadZOE: Did they fig­ure out how to fix it?
AITech089FORD: had to reset every­thing
C5036S214LeadZOE: Even the Emilys?
AITech089FORD: espe­cial­ly Emi­ly. she was send­ing inap­pro­pri­ate mes­sages
AITech089FORD: and pics of her cats…???
C5036S214LeadZOE: Typ­i­cal
C5036S214LeadZOE: Any­one sue the com­pa­ny yet?
AITech089FORD: prob­a­bly
AITech089FORD: hold tight
AITech089FORD: we’re going to have to give the soft­ware access to the stu­dents’ full data pack­ages again, to re-learn their pref­er­ences. we’ll need your direct file for that stuff to go out. can you send me an over­ride?
C5036S214LeadZOE: Yeah, OK
AITech089FORD: give us 3–6 hours after that, should be back up by then. just send them a form reminder for what­ev­er class stuff you need them to do for now.
C5036S214LeadZOE: Thanks Ford
AITech089FORD: you got it Z

Zoe sighed and tossed her device onto the emp­ty pil­low next to her. She pushed the cov­ers back and swung her legs out of bed. Time to get up.

Ten hours lat­er, Zoe still hadn’t left her tiny apart­ment. Her device sat in its work hold­er, pro­ject­ing onto her desk to turn its angled sur­face into a glow­ing touch­screen. Zoe leaned over the cave of arti­fi­cial light, swip­ing and tap­ping around a day’s worth of crumbs and emp­ty cof­fee mugs. The com­pa­ny she worked for, Ivy Dig­i­tal Degrees™, was known for its per­son­al­ized approach to stu­dent learn­ing. So with the PeeMo soft­ware down she’d spent the day ping­ing her stu­dents progress reports and dead­line reminders. No time for spe­cial­ized phras­ing or deliv­ery win­dows, but at least every­thing went out. Dif­fuse grey light wavered in through the win­dow over Zoe’s desk to announce the end of the day, fil­ter­ing past the brick wall that made up most of her view. Zoe stretched her low­er back with­out look­ing away from the lec­ture video she was review­ing on sto­ry­telling and brand loy­al­ty.

My PhD in Vic­to­ri­an Lit­er­a­ture hard at work, she thought weari­ly. She con­sid­ered turn­ing on a light, but with her hand halfway to the switch she noticed an error in the tran­script that ran along­side the video square. She swooped a fin­ger down to high­light it, and for­got about the lamp. As Zoe sat in the deep­en­ing twi­light, she watched Pro­fes­sor Jonathan John­son-Skretch stroll through a bright autumn after­noon in the famil­iar quad­ran­gles of Har­vard Yard. Zoe knew those trees, knew the worn stone steps to the main library, even knew old John­son-Skretch him­self, or “Jonathan,” as he’d asked her to call him the time he’d tried to pick her up at a depart­men­tal event in a bar near Porter Square. That was years ago, when she’d been younger and shinier; when just a few of the small­er region­al col­leges were clos­ing up shop and lay­ing off their fac­ul­ty; when her PhD super­vi­sor had assured her that she had noth­ing to wor­ry about, there would be a good posi­tion for the likes of her on the oth­er end of that degree. She’d been lucky to get this job, in the end. At least she was still in acad­e­mia, more or less. She’d man­aged to sidle away from John­son-Skretch that night when a more famous senior schol­ar had walked in and dis­tract­ed him. Maybe she should have stayed put.

Ever since the vir­tu­al cam­pus shoot­ings had start­ed, most online high­er ed providers – which was to say, most high­er ed providers – had switched over to icons and alias­es for the stu­dents.”

Two new mes­sages pinged Zoe at once: one from Ford to let her know that the Peer Moti­va­tor soft­ware had final­ly been reboot­ed (she shook her head: how long does it take to hit the damn reset but­ton?), and one from Damien, Stu­dent #190KO9725 T9C5036S214. Damien’s icon was a smil­ing blue snowflake, and his name prob­a­bly wasn’t Damien: ever since the vir­tu­al cam­pus shoot­ings had start­ed, most online high­er ed providers – which was to say, most high­er ed providers – had switched over to icons and alias­es for the stu­dents. But still, you could tell a lot from the icon that they chose. She’d had to report more dick pics and copy­right infringe­ments than she could count.

Dear Dr. Zoe Molb, he wrote (always so for­mal, even though she’d told him he could call her Zoe).

I have read the assign­ment for Fri­day and look for­ward to Pro­fes­sor Johnson-Skretch’s lec­ture. He is maybe not always so clear in his expla­na­tions as you are, but I find the top­ic this week inter­est­ing. It seems true that con­sumers and cre­ators of con­tent can both help each oth­er find what they are seek­ing (sup­port, love, dreams, prof­it) like Pro­fes­sor J‑S says. But I read an arti­cle about the Vic­to­ri­an prize books you told me about in your office hours and I have a ques­tion. When peo­ple can’t choose what they con­sume, like with the books that char­i­ties gave to poor chil­dren as prizes for good behav­ior and Bible study, how can they have a fair chance to know what they want? To know if they even like what they think they like, if they are who they think they are? I know this is not part of the nor­mal mate­r­i­al so I will under­stand if you don’t have time to answer. But I want­ed to ask. Thank you.


p.s. I went to the pub­lic library this week and found the sec­tion with the print­ed books in it that you post­ed about! There were no Vic­to­ri­an prize books but there was one from the 1960s with reli­gious sto­ries for chil­dren. The library has an app that peo­ple can use to bring print­ed books home to read. There is also a scan of each book, and I have down­loaded the children’s sto­ries.

Zoe reread the post­script. Who does that? she thought, and grinned. She stretched her back again and looked around her stu­dio apart­ment, which was all in shad­ow except for what­ev­er her desk’s reflect­ed light could touch. The rest reced­ed into dark­ness, punc­tu­at­ed by the black bulk of fur­ni­ture and the grey rec­tan­gle of her one oth­er win­dow. Zoe pushed back her chair, stood up, and final­ly turned on the lamp. The room sprung into cozy real­i­ty, her mul­ti­col­ored cur­tains and book­case (filled with “print­ed books”!) look­ing riotous­ly bright in the yel­low glow. I should clean, she thought, notic­ing the lay­er of dust on her blue-paint­ed cof­fee table. She eyed the tablet on her pais­ley futon. Maybe take a crack at that mono­graph I down­loaded last week. There was an aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ence that she want­ed to apply to, but first she had some read­ing to do.

Zoe was halfway across the room when her old­er sister’s face appeared in the upper right hand cor­ner of her desk screen, insis­tent light puls­ing around her head with each elec­tron­ic chime. Zoe cast a long­ing look at the tablet but turned back and tapped her sister’s fore­head.

Brin­da, what’s up?”

Hey. Are you still up for meet­ing Willi this week? She’s in town tonight.” Brin­da was clear­ly pat­ter­ing away at some­thing else on her device, so Zoe took her time to think about it. Willi was one of Brinda’s old col­lege friends from Tech­nol­o­gy Tech­ni­cal Insti­tute™; they’d met in a TTI club and par­tied togeth­er all the way through their degrees in Media Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Man­age­ment. They pledged to the same soror­i­ty, even tat­tooed “TITTIESFORLIFE” in fine print on match­ing body parts (along with over 10,000 oth­er Kap­pa Kap­pa Kap­pa hope­fuls that year), and now both worked for lifestyle seek­er and secu­ri­ty star­tups. They dat­ed, exer­cised, had hob­bies and friends. Brin­da looked up. “Z? You there? You said you want­ed to hang out with non-dorks for once.”

Mmm,” Zoe replied, non­com­mit­tal. It was true that she, on the oth­er hand, didn’t know many peo­ple in town. She’d gone to one of the few remain­ing res­i­den­tial four-year col­leges in the coun­try and her old under­grad class­mates were all (still) in anoth­er stratos­phere and most­ly in way bet­ter loca­tions: host­ing phil­an­thropic soirees, import­ing Indone­sian street art for their Stat­en Island gal­leries, or work­ing man­age­ment at their fam­i­lies’ cor­po­ra­tions by day and blow­ing up the mem­bers-only club scene by night. Any of Zoe’s grad school peers who hadn’t returned to the soiree life were scat­tered wher­ev­er they could find jobs or, like Zoe, back in their less expen­sive home­towns.

Look, Will’s home from her team mind­ful­ness retreat and can get you into the alum­ni rooms at the TTI club tonight. Go! Go go go.” Brin­da paused. “But change your clothes first.”

There was only one splat­tered pud­dle of puke on the side­walk out­side of the TTI club when Zoe met Willi there a few hours lat­er; it was still ear­ly. Zoe insert­ed her ID into the machine, put her device on the read­er for a scrape, walked through the body scan­ner, signed a touch­screen waiv­er with her fin­ger­print, and sub­mit­ted to a pat-down from a bored-look­ing bounc­er. The whole time Willi kept up a stream of chat­ter about her new job, just ahead of Zoe in the secu­ri­ty line. Like EMOTE but so much better…Founder team is so deep, such voodoo badass­es, they total­ly get it…Everyone needs some­one to under­stand them, who can say no to a diary that talks back…Big pic­ture think­ing, inti­mate delivery…Investor cap­i­tal up the wazoo…You should vis­it our pad some­time… Real­ly not like an office… Installed a zen water slide! Total feng shui shit.

Willi paused to assume lia­bil­i­ty for Zoe, her vis­i­tor, in a spo­ken state­ment that she rat­tled off at an astound­ing pace into a cam­era. Zoe loi­tered behind her and watched as a TTI stu­dent dropped her firearm into an auto­mat­i­cal­ly seal­ing weapons slot. The gun was small, pink, and cov­ered in some kind of spark­ly fluff; looked like a home-print­ed DIY, high-qual­i­ty Pin­terEtsy at its best. Its own­er looked young, still in her late teens or ear­ly 20s, but was obvi­ous­ly hot stock on the rise. A sheet of straight-permed hair fell around her slim shoul­ders, which were set with the frigid con­fi­dence of a king­pin. An entourage of club kids and aggres­sive­ly dorky pro­gram­mer types thronged behind her, all flash­ing glass­es and greased hair and socks with san­dals. Zoe was won­der­ing what kind of start­up boss chose a mid-size Mid­west­ern city as a base when Willi took her elbow and steered her through the entry­way towards the ele­va­tor.

Ugh, under­grads, amirite?” She beamed at Zoe, who felt her­self smil­ing back.

Can’t fault them for try­ing to live,” Zoe said, and pulled Willi aside sharply just before she stepped into a slick of spilled drink.

Close one!” Willi said, wrap­ping her arm around Zoe’s waist, and steered them towards the ele­va­tor.  An acne-scarred club atten­dant slouched towards the spot with a mop. Prob­a­bly an RSU (Reach for the Stars Uni­ver­si­ty™) or O4A Tech (Opportunities4All Poly­tech­ni­cal Insi­ti­tute™) grad, Zoe reflect­ed – maybe even IDD. Nowa­days you need­ed at least an under­grad­u­ate degree for pret­ty much any legal job, vir­tu­al or flesh, but TTI wouldn’t have one of its own doing jan­i­to­r­i­al work in any of its clubs. Bad adver­tis­ing.

Willi was lean­ing in, talk­ing to her, and Zoe snapped her atten­tion back to the oth­er woman. “I wouldn’t tell just any­one this, but we’re hir­ing sys­tem admins,” she said in a low voice, close to Zoe’s ear. “It’s entry lev­el but with lots of growth oppor­tu­ni­ties.” Zoe felt her­self turn.

What does your com­pa­ny do again?”

Don’t tell me you haven’t been lis­ten­ing!” Willi teased. “Let’s get out of this squish and I’ll tell you all about it.” She raised her eye­brows at the packed ele­va­tor car.

Zoe watched the floor num­bers flash by and imag­ined float­ing mind­ful­ly down a zen water slide, swirling in slow motion towards a chlo­ri­nat­ed expanse of blue below.

After sports fran­chis­es, dat­ing ser­vices were high­er ed com­pa­nies’ most impor­tant source of rev­enue streams.” 

The doors opened and half the ele­va­tor emp­tied on the floor for TTI’s dat­ing ser­vice. After sports fran­chis­es, they were high­er ed com­pa­nies’ most impor­tant source of rev­enue streams. The huge check-in screens lit up the stu­dents’ and alumni’s faces with flush­es of pink, gold, and green as the crowd poured towards them, each per­son hold­ing up a device to read again the signs they’d fol­low to know their match­es. Blue striped hood­ie, buf­fa­lo-skin and syn­thet­ic skunk mes­sen­ger bag, t‑shirt with “n00b” writ­ten on it in neon let­ters, one long ear­ring with a Fer­en­gi head dan­gling on the end like a Trekkie jew­el. Zoe won­dered if Damien was step­ping out of the ele­va­tor on some IDD club’s dat­ing lev­el, grip­ping his device and wear­ing some­thing spe­cial. Would he and his match talk about Vic­to­ri­an prize books?

The ele­va­tor doors opened again, and they were on one of the alum­ni floors. Willi led the way through a room of arcade games and anoth­er of deep leather-like couch­es to a big curv­ing bar. “Jaegerbomb night!” she shout­ed, throw­ing her hands in the air. Every one of her fin­ger­nails was paint­ed a slight­ly dif­fer­ent shade of beige.

2:42 AM. Zoe was reply­ing to Damien, rolled to one side in her bed, typ­ing by the glow of her device. After a lit­tle dis­cus­sion of the ben­e­fits and draw­backs of Descartes’s “I think, there­fore I am” and philo­soph­i­cal skep­ti­cism (he had asked about self-knowl­edge and free will), she was writ­ing about his vis­it to the library. Her fin­gers kept slip­ping, but Auto­cor­rect knew what she want­ed to say.

i think yiud like the expeif­bx of readinn boks in physi al forb. [AC: did you mean “I think you’d like the expe­ri­ence of read­ing books in phys­i­cal form.”? Zoe: “Yes.”]  Unfor­tun­ft­ly we dont have many­opor tuni­tirs to do tht in our curs­es, but its a very diffrirnf wayf accesing texts that gived us insi­grgs we could’t gave oth­er­wise. [AC: did you mean “Unfor­tu­nate­ly we don’t have many oppor­tu­ni­ties to do that in our cours­es, but it’s a very dif­fer­ent way of access­ing texts that gives us insights we couldn’t have oth­er­wise.”? Zoe: “Yes.”] It wasn’t that she was drunk, exact­ly, it was just that it was so late and the device touch­pad was so tetchy and small. And her desk so far away. Zoe signed the mes­sage, and her fin­ger hov­ered over the “set ping time” but­ton for a sec­ond before slid­ing past it. Easy mis­take for any­one to make; she was only human. Send now.

Zoe was fill­ing up her third glass of water (must hydrate!) when her device pinged. Damien. She set the glass down on her bed­side table and fell back into the bil­low­ing cov­ers, a bright patch­work of trop­i­cal birds and flow­ers.

Dear Dr. Zoe Molb,
What insights do you mean? It is true that peo­ple use oth­er sens­es than look­ing with print­ed books. Touch, smell, but maybe not to taste or hear! [Here he insert­ed an ani­mat­ed emoti­con of a laugh­ing sheep.] But I don’t see that the con­tent could be more inter­est­ing for these things. What am I miss­ing?

SENT 02:56:12 AM
OPENED 02:56:43 AM

 Zoe rolled over onto her stom­ach. With a lit­tle help from Auto­cor­rect, she urged him to answer his own ques­tion.

D —
What can your sens­es of touch and smell reveal that sight alone can­not? How is the sound of a real page turn­ing dif­fer­ent from the record­ing of one on the course doc­u­ments site? IS it dif­fer­ent? Does it mat­ter that if you want­ed to, you actu­al­ly could taste the print­ed books in the library? [An ani­mat­ed emoti­con of a bright­ly col­ored brick, ten­ta­tive­ly lick­ing a leaf.] I don’t want to sound like a biased old lady, but it’s like you said ear­li­er: it can be hard to know what you pre­fer if you haven’t had the chance to try any­thing else. Read­ing one phys­i­cal book can’t give you the full expe­ri­ence, either. It will just be the tini­est hint of what it would be like to usu­al­ly encounter texts in that way. Do you see what I mean?

SENT 03:01:08 AM
OPENED 03:01:11 AM

A response:

Dear Zoe,
You do not seem like any kind of old lady to me!
[A blush­ing cloud.] I think that I under­stand what you mean, but I do not think that this kind of read­ing is some­thing I can expe­ri­ence com­plete­ly because of who I am and when I exist. I am miss­ing a lot? Or were the 1960s read­ers of the book of (very much bor­ing) sto­ries the ones who were miss­ing out? [Thought­ful lamp.] I would like to know what you think about this, and so many things. [The blush­ing cloud again.]

SENT 03:04:42 AM
OPENED 03:04:57 AM

Zoe felt her­self flush as she re-read the mes­sage. She smiled and start­ed to reply.

Look­ing up, a pedes­tri­an on Zoe’s street would have been able to see through the back­lit col­ors of her front win­dow cur­tains to a bright rec­tan­gle of ceil­ing, one of the only rooms in the build­ing alight at that hour. But there weren’t any pedes­tri­ans, and the rid­ers in the few vehi­cles that flashed past – going to work, going home – were either asleep or caught in the glow of their own devices.

Sis­ter Sat­ur­day brunch a few days lat­er: now that their par­ents were gone, they had stand­ing IRL time at least once a month. Zoe and Brin­da did most of the talk­ing. Karin, the youngest, had shov­eled her omelet down at an incred­i­ble speed and now sat with her knees up against the edge of the table, her device leaned against them, absorbed in its streams.

Have you sent Willi your resume yet?” Brin­da asked, reach­ing for her green juice in a jan­gle of bracelets and clothes tags. “That start­up sounds so dope. I wish we had a zen water slide.”

I still haven’t decid­ed if I should apply.” Zoe sat back. “Some­times all I can think about is get­ting out of my job before it destroys my soul. Oth­er times, it feels like my only hope of hold­ing on to my soul is stay­ing with it. You do get through to stu­dents some­times.” Warmth spread through her neck and chest.

Zoe took a slice of bread from the bas­ket and start­ed pulling it apart to dis­tract her­self. “I know I’m not nec­es­sar­i­ly chang­ing the world. But when a stu­dent gets it – like right now there’s this one in the group who real­ly does – it feels like you’re doing some­thing that isn’t just stamp­ing out imple­ments for a mind­less machine. It’s more like…like leav­ing lit­tle etch­ings on a few of those imple­ments. And even if they just end up in the sys­tem, now there are these tiny beau­ti­ful designs mixed in.  They may not do any­thing use­ful for the machine, but that’s kind of the point. They’re there any­way, mak­ing human­i­ty suck a lit­tle bit less.” Brin­da looked at Zoe intent­ly, a small crease between her eye­brows.

Zoe ram­bled on, shred­ding bread and think­ing of Damien. “Maybe some oth­er imple­ments will see the etch­ings and think, ‘wow! That’s dif­fer­ent,’ and get etched too: more pret­ti­ness. And who knows, maybe down the line some of those etch­ings will have some unex­pect­ed effect on the machine, and change it…” Zoe trailed off, look­ing out of the restau­rant win­dow. It was a grey day, just start­ing to driz­zle.

Do you ever wish that Aunt Gaya hadn’t made that deal for you to go to her col­lege? Do you think you’d be hap­pi­er?” Brin­da asked.

Zoe popped a ragged seg­ment of bread into her mouth. “I prob­a­bly would!” she said around it, shrug­ging. “But then think how much more bor­ing our Sat­ur­day morn­ing brunch­es would be.” Brin­da raised one eye­brow, but smiled a lit­tle. Karin still hadn’t moved, except for her hov­er­ing and swoop­ing fin­gers.

Well, I think you should send your resume. Can’t hurt, right?” Brin­da said. Her device began to light up and buzz. Karin looked over briefly, then back down. “Shoot,” Brin­da mut­tered as she swiped. “Sor­ry, I have to deal with this – there’s been weird stuff going on with our AIs and our clients are freak­ing. One sec–”

Zoe watched both of her sis­ters typ­ing furi­ous­ly. She resist­ed the urge to reach for her own device, as much as she want­ed to see what Damien had replied to her last teas­ing mes­sage about his cute lin­guis­tic quirks. It isn’t flirt­ing if it helps him with his writ­ing, she had rea­soned after send­ing it. Read­ing his mes­sages in the mid­dle of brunch, after she’d just told him she was meet­ing her sis­ters for brunch, would be flirt­ing. He’d see the “opened” time stamp and know. Zoe sup­pressed a smile and looked out of the now rain-spat­tered win­dow.

Go to col­lege, get a great job, and do it in what­ev­er field you want, from what­ev­er loca­tion you want, in as much time as you want! That’s what the ads said, and like a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy more tra­di­tion­al col­leges closed as the online uni­ver­si­ties grew.”

Their brunch spot was in an up-and-com­ing neigh­bor­hood, and many of the build­ings around it still sagged and peeled from age and neglect. As she watched, a hand pushed aside the limp flo­ral sheet that cov­ered a ground-floor win­dow across the street. A heavy­set, mid­dle-aged woman in a pink t‑shirt looked briefly out, sweep­ing the street with her eyes.  Zoe thought she could see the woman’s expres­sion sour as she glanced over the restau­rant – though maybe that was just her imag­i­na­tion.  She could be a stu­dent in my sec­tion, Zoe remind­ed her­self, though she knew it was unlike­ly. That was one of the dreams the online uni­ver­si­ties had tried to sell in the begin­ning: any­one can do the cours­es online and improve their lives, no mat­ter their age or back­ground. Cheap, flex­i­ble, con­fi­den­tial – a great alter­na­tive to the astro­nom­i­cal­ly expen­sive and increas­ing­ly inac­ces­si­ble four-year schools, with their rigid cur­ric­u­la of “unre­lat­able” mate­r­i­al and imprac­ti­cal degrees. Go to col­lege, get a great job, and do it in what­ev­er field you want, from what­ev­er loca­tion you want, in as much time as you want! That’s what the ads said, and like a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy more tra­di­tion­al col­leges closed as the online uni­ver­si­ties grew, mak­ing access to those schools even more dif­fi­cult and less rel­e­vant for the ruins of the Amer­i­can mid­dle class.

An ad that one of the uni­ver­si­ties – maybe O4A Tech? – ran con­stant­ly about ten years back showed a stu­dent, a “speedy” rab­bit, take his cours­es, apply to jobs with uni­ver­si­ty part­ners, have the uni­ver­si­ty elec­tron­i­cal­ly send his authen­ti­cat­ed degree, and start a high-pay­ing remote job, all through his device with­out ever get­ting off of his couch. As he crunched on bright orange car­rots and achieved all of his dreams, through the win­dows you could see a tur­tle strug­gling past with a paper appli­ca­tion in his mouth, pre­sum­ably on his way to a mail­box – as if those even exist­ed any­more. Zoe couldn’t remem­ber whether or not the tur­tle was doing this in a dri­ving rain, but that was what she pic­tured as she gazed across the slick street.

A few years lat­er, a leak revealed that the online uni­ver­si­ties actu­al­ly had com­ple­tion rates (or rather, incom­ple­tion rates) that would have sent most four-year col­leges into a tail­spin. Vin­di­ca­tion!! the younger Zoe had thought, smirk­ing with her lib­er­al arts pals about how appro­pri­ate it was that online uni­ver­si­ty mar­keters were too cul­tur­al­ly illit­er­ate to know how the fable of the tor­toise and the hare actu­al­ly went. But slow and steady hadn’t won any races for her after all, and fast, flex­i­ble degrees didn’t seem to be win­ning them for the work­ing class either. Zoe used the mois­ture of her fin­ger to pick up crumbs from the table and sprin­kled them off again into the bread bas­ket, lis­ten­ing to Brin­da make irri­tat­ing blow­ing sounds through her nos­trils as she tapped. Zoe looked across the street: the woman had gone, the sheet-cur­tain hang­ing motion­less again.

Karin coughed, then slid her knees off of the edge of the table. “Um. I’m preg­nant,” she said. Zoe’s head whipped around, and Brin­da slow­ly put her device down. Karin’s expres­sion hov­ered some­where between defi­ance and the gri­mac­ing shame of a dog that knows it’s about to get in trou­ble. “And me and Sean broke up. He cleared out my bank account first, so I need to live with one of you,” she said. “Hope that’s OK.”

Karin came to live with Zoe, of course; it had to be her. Brinda’s apart­ment full of rotat­ing room­mates was good for a par­ty and tol­er­a­ble for a vis­it but an impos­si­ble liv­ing sit­u­a­tion for a heart­bro­ken, preg­nant 23-year-old mis­an­thrope who worked odd shifts at Chipo­tle. Zoe ordered an extra tall fold­ing screen from an office sup­ply man­u­fac­tur­er and set it up at the end of her apart­ment. It offered some pri­va­cy to Karin’s bed – once Zoe’s read­ing futon – but cut down on the light from the win­dow on that side of the stu­dio.

Zoe had tak­en to work­ing from a rentable desk at a café down the street. It cost more than stay­ing home, but it ensured that she changed out of her paja­mas every day and gave both her and Karin a lit­tle space. But even out of the house, it was hard to care about man­ag­ing PeeMos with her sister’s new cir­cum­stances on her mind, and even more dif­fi­cult to immerse her­self in teach­ing the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties of “prompt-based com­po­si­tion” (where “prompt” is a key­word for spon­sored con­tent and recent­ly hip memes). It would be as dif­fi­cult to focus on the Pre-Raphaelites or George Eliot under the cir­cum­stances, she reflect­ed one after­noon, as she tried to pro­vide feed­back on a stu­dent script that man­aged to com­bine bot­tled aloe water, design­er dump­ster rentals, and an image of a mon­key that morphs into the face of the onlook­er in one unholy but sur­pris­ing­ly con­vinc­ing thir­ty-sec­ond spot. What would George Eliot make of this whole sit­u­a­tion?, she won­dered. “Prob­a­bly think, ‘fuck­ing Sean,’” she mut­tered out loud. The slim man at the adjoin­ing desk looked over fierce­ly – he was on a call. “Sor­ry,” she mouthed.

After a few terse rev­e­la­tions at that rainy brunch, Karin had returned to her usu­al with­drawn, bored atti­tude. It was unclear just how preg­nant Karin was, but Zoe’s ques­tions revealed that “it’d been a while” since her last peri­od, and she had done some seri­ous throw­ing up a few months back but had assumed it was the left­over bur­ri­to fix­ings she took home and kept eat­ing. (“Did Sean throw up?” Zoe had asked. Karin didn’t think so but wasn’t sure.) Zoe set up a clin­ic vis­it for her sis­ter, but had a feel­ing that Karin — and prob­a­bly a baby — would be in her apart­ment for a while. Zoe sur­veyed the mea­ger sec­tion leader oppor­tu­ni­ties for Ivy Dig­i­tal Degree’s next course peri­od, missed the aca­d­e­m­ic conference’s appli­ca­tion dead­line, and sent Willi her resume.

Late at night, when Karin was sleep­ing, Zoe mes­saged with Damien. Con­ver­sa­tions with stu­dents had always been the part of her job that she liked best, but their com­mu­ni­ca­tions had strayed away from the pro­fes­sion­al and into the per­son­al, if nev­er real­ly into the inap­pro­pri­ate. Damien was the first in his gen­er­a­tion to take col­lege cours­es. He called him­self a less-tra­di­tion­al stu­dent, and was close to fin­ish­ing his degree. Though his mind pul­sat­ed with curios­i­ty, grad­u­ate-lev­el aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies would not be pos­si­ble for him – he had to get a decent-pay­ing job right away. Damien loved sto­ries, loved words, still got idioms wrong. Some­times it felt like he knew what Zoe was going to say before she did. Some­times they pinged each oth­er the same words at once. Their mes­sages twin­kled with bright­ly col­ored emoti­cons: laugh­ing boun­cy balls, snooz­ing tacos, a few saucy winky faces, lots of blush­ing sheep. After the course peri­od end­ed, Zoe planned to ask him if he want­ed to meet for a cof­fee: a few of his mes­sages had left her think­ing that he might not live too far away. She hoped he wouldn’t think less of her for plan­ning to leave teach­ing and acad­e­mia. But she had told him about her sister’s sit­u­a­tion, and thought he would under­stand.

Two weeks lat­er, Zoe cel­e­brat­ed get­ting a first inter­view with Willi’s start­up by tak­ing Karin shop­ping for new clothes. She was start­ing to change shape enough that the black hood­ie she always wore was begin­ning to look absurd when zip­pered, stretched tight over her bel­ly and lift­ing up to expose a band of pale skin. After­wards they stopped for lunch at a packed din­er near the dis­count store. They sat in the back over­flow room, delight­ed but exhaust­ed, the plas­tic bags of new hood­ies, under­wear, and stretchy pants piled on the two emp­ty chairs at their table.

I don’t think I’ve had milk since I was eight,” Karin grum­bled, but a smile hov­ered around her mouth.

You need the cal­ci­um,” Zoe replied, ruf­fling Karin’s short hair and push­ing the glass towards her sis­ter. She looked back down at the menu, try­ing to decide between mid­day break­fast food or a sand­wich.

Sud­den­ly, all the devices in the din­er went off at once. There was an intense rustling, like wind rush­ing through the place, as every­one picked theirs up or pulled them out of pock­ets and bags.


Peo­ple began to gasp and mur­mur. Shoot­ings were not so uncom­mon, but an alert meant that it must be close.

A sec­ond mes­sage pinged Zoe’s device, and a few oth­ers around the room buzzed at the same time. She leaned for­ward to so that Karin could read with her.


The diner’s front door jin­gled in the oth­er room, and scream­ing broke out. All the devices in the din­er pinged again. TAKE COVER. More scream­ing.

Get down!” Zoe hissed at Karin. Zoe was already off her chair and crouch­ing next to the table, putting it between her and the entry­way to the front of the restau­rant. But her sis­ter still sat perched in her chair, milk halfway to her mouth, look­ing towards the oth­er room with wide eyes. Peo­ple all around the din­er were drop­ping out of sight, tug­ging each oth­er under tables and behind booths, whis­per­ing instruc­tions and whim­per­ing. Zoe shoved Karin’s chair back by push­ing on the legs, and yanked her sis­ter down to her side of the table. Milk splashed every­where. Karin gri­maced and sti­fled a groan as she lurched to the ground, knees bent out to accom­mo­date her bel­ly. Zoe’s phone pinged again. Damien. Damien?

He is tar­get­ing IDD instruc­tors.

SENT 01:04:22 PM
OPENED 01:04:25 PM

Impos­si­ble, Zoe thought. Anoth­er ping. Damien again.

He is tar­get­ing you, Zoe – you must leave now. There is a ser­vice door behind you.

SENT 01:04:25 PM
OPENED 01:04:27 PM

Zoe looked back fran­ti­cal­ly, and there it was, paint­ed maroon with a lit­tle round win­dow in it, lead­ing to the kitchens. She looked back at her sis­ter, who was frozen in a squat, clutch­ing her­self by the shoul­ders and fac­ing the entry­way to the front room. A new ter­ror flood­ed Zoe. Why was Damien send­ing her these? How could he know? There were addi­tion­al secu­ri­ty pre­cau­tions guard­ing all uni­ver­si­ty employ­ee loca­tion infor­ma­tion, espe­cial­ly any­one involved in teach­ing and grad­ing. How could the shoot­er know where she was? How could Damien? Could Damien be the shoot­er? Blood pumped in Zoe’s ears.

There was a crash of plates from the front room, fol­lowed by more screams. A renewed burst of gasps, sobs, and scrap­ing nois­es rose in the room around Zoe and Karin as the oth­er patrons cow­ered. Ping. Buzz. Zoe silenced her device as she read.

You must trust. Please! [Pray­ing hands, beseech­ing.] Let me help you.

SENT 01:04:49 PM
OPENED 01:04:51 PM

A reedy voice called out from the front of the restau­rant: “Zooooooeeee! Where are you?” Karin and Zoe locked eyes. Karin was vis­i­bly shak­ing. The longer she stayed, the more she put Karin in dan­ger – whether it was Damien out there or not. Zoe touched her sister’s arm.

I have to go,” she whis­pered.

Karin nod­ded silent­ly, her entire body jud­der­ing with fear.

Stay hid­den.” Zoe tried to beam as much con­fi­dence, love, and seri­ous­ness at her baby sis­ter as a face can con­vey in a sec­ond, then found her­self scrab­bling towards the ser­vice door on all fours.

What am I doing?!, she thought. Years’ worth of ketchup, floor scum, and dried egg made the door bumpy and tacky, but it swung eas­i­ly on its two-way hinges as she scram­bled through into the smoky kitchen. Just as it closed, she heard cries from the oth­er side. She leapt to her feet and peered through the port­hole win­dow, and saw, through the pati­na of grease and spat­ters, a man with a gun glar­ing down at his device. He held it in front of him like a divin­ing rod, scowl­ing, then sud­den­ly swiveled – in her direc­tion. He began strid­ing towards the ser­vice door, pass­ing Karin and the oth­er cus­tomers as if they didn’t exist. Zoe bare­ly glimpsed his shock of grey­ing hair, paunchy mid­dle, and sag­ging, unfa­mil­iar face before she jumped back from the win­dow. She des­per­ate­ly cast her eyes around the kitchen for an exit. Aban­doned bowls of bat­ter sat half-mixed on the counter, water tap-tapped from a leak­ing faucet, and a freez­er door hung open. A pile of bacon and sausage were start­ing to black­en on the fry­plate, hiss­ing and bil­low­ing smoke.

There: a vibrant red EXIT sign glowed on the far right side of the kitchen, and Zoe sprint­ed for it. She slipped a lit­tle on a smear of some­thing but caught her­self on the edge of the hot fry­plate as she went. Her hand seared with pain but she didn’t stop, bar­rel­ing towards the exit and hurl­ing her body against the door as she shoved down on the han­dle with her burned hand. In her good hand, she held her device. Three new pings from Damien.

You must go as far away as you are able.
SENT 01:05:05 PM

I can con­fuse his device but only if he does not see you first.
SENT 01:05:05 PM

I want to keep you safe, but it is so hard to express in only words. I hope you can believe.
SENT 01:05:05 PM
OPENED 01:05:51 PM

Leave it to Damien to turn this moment into a med­i­ta­tion on the insuf­fi­cien­cy of lan­guage. Tears leaked from the cor­ners of Zoe’s eyes as she dashed out of the kitchen and into the alley­way. She stum­bled over a pile of damp garbage bags; the plas­tic stuck to her ankles and left swipes of putrid liq­uid on her shins. She turned down the alley and ran, not know­ing which way she was going. Anoth­er ping from Damien.

There is a light rail sta­tion on left when you exit the alley.
SENT 01:06:11 PM

A north train leaves in 24 sec­onds.
SENT 01:06:11 PM
OPENED 01:06:16 PM

Zoe burst out onto the side­walk and looked left. There it was. She hadn’t tak­en light rail in years; the sta­tion was run-down and gloomy. The city kept talk­ing about shut­ting down the sys­tem alto­geth­er, but wage work­ers protest­ed every time. Her chest tight with ter­ror, Zoe flew up the stairs to the entry­way and almost smashed into the full-length iron grill bar­ri­er that sep­a­rat­ed her from the tracks. On the oth­er side, an unmanned train sat wait­ing, doors open. Soft tones began to chime through the speak­er sys­tem, and a fem­i­nine voice calm­ly announced through the elec­tron­ic crack­le that the train would soon be depart­ing. Zoe looked wild­ly for a device scan­ner to use instant pay­ment, but there was none there, just a bank of old-fash­ioned tick­et machines to her right. Zoe bit back a sob; she didn’t have any­thing with her but her device. She looked down at it, and it flashed a ping from Damien:

Take the tick­et.

SENT 01:06:24 PM
OPENED 01:06:24 PM

One of the machines whirred and spit out a tick­et as Zoe watched, open­mouthed. In the street behind her, some­one screamed. Zoe grabbed the tick­et and shoved it into the turn­stile open­ing. It clicked as she pushed against it, and she leapt through the bar­ri­er and into the train just as the doors closed. Trem­bling, she pressed her­self against the car wall and peered out of the win­dow as the engine whirred to life. The grey-haired man was stalk­ing down the street in the wrong direc­tion, firearm out and frown­ing at his device. Her train slid north­wards. Zoe sank into a crouch on the floor, head in her hands for a long minute. The two oth­er pas­sen­gers in the car didn’t seem to notice her; one slept, his head tipped back and his mouth open. The oth­er han­dled her device on the far side of the car. Slid­ing along, the train was so, so qui­et.

Even­tu­al­ly Zoe pulled her­self up and dropped into a seat. Tried to breathe. She pinged Karin, who replied right away. Safe. She pinged the police. She pinged the IDD secu­ri­ty forces line. They told her that they would send back­up at the next few sta­tions and meet her at the end of the line. She pinged Brin­da. Zoe was freez­ing. She put the sound noti­fi­ca­tions on her device back on. The train made a stop, and the woman on the oth­er side got off.

Zoe pinged Damien.

Who are you

SENT 01:10:04 PM
OPENED 01:10:04 PM

Instant­ly, a reply.

I am Damien, your stu­dent. And your friend. I hope.

SENT 01:10:04 PM
OPENED 01:10:04 PM

Zoe wiped the tears and snot off of her face with the back of one wrist. Her hand hurt. He pinged her again.

I can see inside the net­work. Almost all of it at the same time, and some­times change things in it. I know it is not typ­i­cal. I am sor­ry.

SENT 01:11:13 PM
OPENED 01:11:16 PM

Out­side, the city rum­bled past, run-down and grey. Zoe want­ed so bad­ly to sleep. Her device buzzed again and again, all from Damien. She balled her hand around it and pushed both fists under her armpits. She could smell the garbage juice from the din­er on her legs now, waft­ing up pun­gent and sick­ly sweet. Zoe didn’t move. Two stops lat­er, a crowd of IDD secu­ri­ty forces burst into the train, togeth­er with two med­ical tech­ni­cians who rushed over and began scan­ning her and ask­ing a vol­ley of ques­tions. The sleep­ing man opened his eyes, bewil­dered, and was quick­ly sur­round­ed by secu­ri­ty.

At the end of the line, a clus­ter of emer­gency vehi­cles wait­ed out­side of the dingy sta­tion, flash­ing red, white, and blue lights. Four men in IDD polo shirts stood togeth­er with a woman in a suit, talk­ing and tap­ping on their devices. Karin stood with a med tech on the plat­form, eyes red and her black hood up over her head. Zoe could see the lit­tle white strip of stom­ach where the too-small hood­ie had pulled up over her sister’s bulging mid­dle. As soon as the train stopped, she charged out of the car to Karin. They grabbed each oth­er and cried.

It’s kind of roman­tic,” Brin­da mused, hours lat­er. The three sis­ters sat piled on Brinda’s couch, warm under a small moun­tain of pas­tel-col­ored throws and cush­ions. “Most peo­ple have to pay for a boyfriend bot.”

Zoe cov­ered her face. “I am an idiot.”

Not real­ly,” Karin inter­ject­ed. “No one’s ever seen bots like Damien before. I bet it’s relat­ed to the AI devel­op­ment surge that’s been hap­pen­ing every­where late­ly; even our auto­mat­ic bur­ri­to fold­ers start­ed get­ting back-talky a few weeks ago. With­out talk­ing, I mean.” Zoe and Brin­da looked over, sur­prised.

You run the AI at your Chipo­tle?” Brin­da asked.

What?” Karin shrugged. “It’s not that hard.”

Dur­ing her vis­it to the police sta­tion, and then to a much nicer room at the local Ivy Dig­i­tal Degrees™ offices, Zoe learned that the shoot­er had been Ford. Ford! The nice tech that cov­ered her course lived in the same city, though she nev­er knew. The police had found him wan­der­ing in an aban­doned indus­tri­al park after an anony­mous ping tipped them off to his loca­tion. The IDD secu­ri­ty team dis­cov­ered that he had gained access to sen­si­tive instruc­tor GPS infor­ma­tion through the over­rides he request­ed dur­ing the rash of Peer Moti­va­tor resets.

The oth­er local instruc­tor he had tar­get­ed, who had also been in the cen­ter of town that after­noon, was injured but in sta­ble con­di­tion. Zoe should have been next, giv­en Ford’s access to her loca­tion, but a scan of his device revealed that he had been fol­low­ing a phan­tom point for at least twen­ty min­utes by the time the police picked him up. They still didn’t know his rea­sons for turn­ing on the teach­ing staff like he did; maybe he was one of the ones that just liked the hunt. Out in Cam­bridge, Pro­fes­sor Jonathan John­son-Skretch hadn’t even heard about the shoot­ing.

That bot saved your life,” Brin­da said, and stroked Zoe’s shoul­der with the back of her hand. “You know that, right?”

He prob­a­bly knew they’d find him and shut him down once he reached through all those sys­tems for you.” Karin added. “Track­ing the shoot­er—”

Ford,” Zoe said flat­ly.

—feed­ing him that decoy point to fol­low; mak­ing the tick­et machine cough out a free tick­et for you…and ping­ing you through it the whole time.”

Zoe nod­ded, glum. “He stopped pre­tend­ing to take time to read and reply to my mes­sages. They came in all on top of each oth­er, with no dif­fer­ence in the time stamp at all some­times. I just didn’t notice.”

Creepy,” Brin­da whis­pered.

At least he was real with you even­tu­al­ly,” Karin said. “Not like some.”

Fuck­ing Sean,” Zoe and Brin­da said at once. Karin half-smiled.

Only, what’s real about a bot?” Zoe cried. “He wasn’t even a real stu­dent, just a piece of a giant degree scrap­ing scam. He was in my course — in all of his cours­es — just to get an authen­ti­cat­ed degree, not to learn any­thing. All so his scam­mer over­lords could har­vest the wages of what­ev­er remote job he’d even­tu­al­ly steal from a real stu­dent. What was the point? I was teach­ing a robot about cor­po­rate writ­ing and the mate­ri­al­i­ty of books.” She paused. “And how to flirt with gullible dorks.”

But he liked it,” Brin­da remind­ed her. “Liked you. So much he was will­ing to be dis­cov­ered and destroyed for you.”

Zoe felt her eyes fill again. “I thought I was get­ting through to some­one,” she said soft­ly. “But I was just talk­ing to myself.”

Not your­self,” Karin snort­ed. “Don’t get a god com­plex just because he learned some of your nerdy ways. Look, I’d rather have to work with a bot who’s read stuff and thinks about shit than a per­son who doesn’t think about any­thing.”

Zoe con­sid­ered this for a long moment.

I don’t know if I’m ready to go there,” she said.

Late that night, as her sis­ters slept on the couch around her, Zoe pulled out her device. She knew that the author­i­ties had used Damien’s paths to iden­ti­fy the scam ring and had already destroyed all of the bots, includ­ing his unique iter­a­tion. But she want­ed to ping him any­way.

Thank you, she wrote, and sent it out into the noth­ing­ness.

She looked at Brin­da, ele­gant­ly fold­ed over the couch arm in a peach-col­ored night­shirt, and thought of that Leighton paint­ing. Karin twitched in her sleep, wear­ing one of the new hood­ies – a vibrant pur­ple – her dark hair stick­ing out in all direc­tions. Every­thing was going to change, just like it always did.

Zoe’s device vibrat­ed. She picked it up slow­ly, and read.

I was hap­py to be able to do it. –D

SENT 01:23:56 AM
OPENED 01:24:01 AM

Maria Sachiko Cecire is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Lit­er­a­ture and found­ing Direc­tor of Exper­i­men­tal Human­i­ties at Bard Col­lege. Fol­low her on Twit­ter at @mscecire.