A petite woman sits tied to a chair with her teeth bared in a snarl. Her arms are bound to the arms of the sturdy wooden chair at the wrists and elbows with a thick rope. She clenches her hands in fists. A torn chunk of dirty white fabric is tied around her face as a blindfold, it contrasts against her dark skin. Her kinky black hair is twisted into knot at the back of her head. Her precisely torn shirt declares, I already have your password, your shit ain’t worth shit. Her legs tied at her ankles so tight her dark jeans nearly wrap around the chair leg too.
Across the room a laptop sits on a table with the tiny green light from the camera glowing solidly. The rest of the room is nearly a cement box. A dirty cement floor, cement block that has been painted white for walls. A power strip from the corner is connected to a mishmash of lights surrounding her, just out of her reach. A floor lamp with the shade removed, a lamp with five bulbs on snake necks all pointed at her, a couple others are plugged in, a mismatched pair of table lamps on the floor. One is kicked over, it had been sitting too close to her feet, even with her ankles tied to the chair.
A set of speakers is plugged into the laptop. They snap as they come to life. The woman screams, her voice is hoarse and she starts coughing.
“Now, now, there is no need for that.” A deep, smooth male voice comes from the computer speakers. The screen remains dark, but a whisper can be heard when she stops to take a breath.
She quiets and strains to hear the whisper. She’s screamed her throat raw and it hasn’t helped, no one is coming. She needs a new plan. She listens carefully. She doesn’t recognize the male voice.
“Much better.” The voice is impossibly calm. She resists the urge to growl, to throw herself around in the chair, it hasn’t worked the last dozen or so times she’s done it. Everything is just making her tired and frustrated.
“Now, if you just answer a few questions for us, we can clear all this up and you can go home.” The voice continues.
“I’m not answering any questions. I have rights. I want a lawyer. I want a glass of water. I want my phone call. I want to go to the bathroom. I want to know what charges I’m being held on.” She’s been over this list of demands before. The first time she just asked for the call. Each time she’s thought of new things she wants. This time, as she shouts the demands, something new happens.
A second voice on the speakers gives a whooping laugh. Then silence. The speakers are quiet again, but something is changing. She knows there are at least two people listening. She can’t hide her grin, each victory here is worth celebrating. The one with the smooth voice doesn’t like that the other one laughed.
“When I get out, and I will, I’m going to contact all the media outlets, I have connections. I’m going to make sure that my story gets told. How is this going to play for you in the press?” She pauses listening to see if the speaker cracks on again. “You snatch a young woman and hold her for hours, tied up, no lawyer, no phone call, and what have I done? Nothing. I did nothing wrong.”
The speaker cracks on again. “We just want answers to a few questions.” The voice is still implacably calm. She sneers at the voice. She is sure they can see, but she doesn’t care.
She was already blind folded when she was brought into the room. So she only knows what she’s managed to figure out in the endless hours she’s been sitting here screaming, cursing, pleading, cajoling. Anything to get out. Nothing is working, yet.
“I’ll answer your question if you answer one of mine.” A new strategy. She isn’t sure it will work, it seems like a shot in the dark. Why should they bother to answer her questions? What questions does she have?
“That is fair. Your agreement is accepted.” The voice responds quickly and there is more hushed whispering.
The only thing keeping her from falling out of her chair in shock is the restraints. She struggles for questions to ask. The voice jumps in first with it’s question.
“Why were you at the underpass at three am on March third?” There is silence.
She can’t imagine why this question. The speaker doesn’t crack off, just silence. “I was following the clues for a game I found online.” She frowns. “Is this about me trespassing? Because that was public land.” She flinches realizing she just asked a question. She wants to find good questions to ask, this is not a good question.
“No. This is not about you trespassing.” The voice responds smoothly and quickly. Each of it’s words is a little too sharp, like someone who took too many speech therapy classes. “Why did you hack into the banks?”
She frowns. “It was only one.” That isn’t exactly true, but she didn’t say she’d be honest. “Because my friend had been charged some fees that she shouldn’t have been. The bank didn’t want to refund them. So I fixed it. How did you know it was me? No one caught me or saw my trail. I’m very careful.”
“You are very careful. No one else saw it. You are good, but I,” there is a pause. She realizes the voice has never paused before, not even when it should have. “I am extremely good at looking for things like that. And I have been looking for you. It was subtle and small enough that even for me it just showed up as a glitch.” There is a soft whisper she can’t quite make out.
“How do you feel about the income divide in the United States of America and internationally?” The voice returns to its unflinching speech pattern.
“What? What on earth does that mean? I don’t…” She screws up her face with confusion. Struggling to find any connection between how she ended up here and political economic bullshit. “You’ve kept me awake for hours with nothing to eat or drink, I can’t use the bathroom, I can’t call a lawyer, I can’t call anyone, I can’t have access to a computer, I can’t even use my hands or feet, and you want to do an election poll?” The outrage in her voice shows. “I can’t even!”
“We believe you are more than capable of answering this question. It does not require significant faculties, it is just a question of your beliefs and feelings on the topic.” The voice is flat, but the whisper in the background is there again.
“Let the other guy talk.” She tries to aim for the whisperer, tries to make her voice bigger, tries to sound authoritative. Maybe this is the CIA, or the NSA, or something, they caught her and want to know if she’s some kind of domestic terrorist.
“Answer the damn question!” The new voice is a man’s voice, but high, fast, and way to excited. Like a voice of someone staying up for three days straight with a new game trying to powerlevel and get to be the first. Someone on drugs. Someone losing his mind.
“What kind of government agency are you?” She asks with a bit of panic in her own voice. “What government hires a dude who is high to question someone?” The man with the clipped voice probably follows the rules, but this guy won’t care at all about the rules, he is dangerous.
“We did not say we are a government agency. You still need to answer our question.” The clipped voice returns. “Please, answer our question. How do you feel about the income divide in the United States of America and internationally?”
She thinks it is the exact same question, reading from a list maybe. She inhales deeply. “I think it is bullshit that places tell their employees how to get government benefits because they won’t pay them enough to live, and it is bullshit that some people get paid more in an hour than most people get in a year. Who are you if you aren’t a government agency?” She isn’t going to point out that she is answering less than they are. She is determined to keep pulling information out of them.
“I am Robin Hood, and he is Little John.” The clipped voice again.
She can’t contain a laugh. “No, really.” She gasps to regain her breath. Her voice is still rough and her throat dry and sore.
“Yes. I am Robin Hood, and he is Little John. That is the moniker he has taken on. And that is the name I have.” The voice shows no humor. She pauses a thought sliding through her mind, almost too slippery to catch. The question the voice asks slips by her as she tries to pull her thoughts together. The voice is repeating itself. She smiles. It asks again. “On May first you sent a message to a financial institution claiming that you could help them with a gap in their security system.” She stops, she needs to hold onto the question, what, what, what are you.
This question isn’t right either though. It isn’t a question yet. She waits for the voice. “Were you successful in patching that gap?”
“No, they didn’t hire me. It doesn’t always work. They figured it out internally I think. What are you?” She turns her head trying to turn her ear toward the voice, listening more carefully.
“I am Robin Hood.” The voice starts.
“What. I said what are you.” Her voice is sharp. She knows she’s onto something, she grins turning her face forward. That must be where they have the cameras or mirror or whatever.
“I am a support system.” The voice answers. She bares her teeth.
“So kid you’re taking orders from a computer program.” She laughs ignoring his response. “I’ve been fucking kidnapped by a goddamn computer program and a kid. Wow, I must suck.”
“On the contrary. Your skills are exemplary. You have demonstrated many times over the last eleven months that you possess a set of skills very few do. Do you know what country has the current highest GDP?” She can’t even hear a whisper from the other voice.
“I’m not a professor of economics, why on earth would I know, or care. That’s not a question by the way. Can’t you look it up? Also not a question. I don’t really care. But if your kid doesn’t have you connected to the internet I might suggest asking him a few questions.” She listens carefully, if she’s going to manage to goad the kid into saying something that will help her she doesn’t want to waste her questions on it.
The speaker is quiet except for the computer voice. “We do know the answer, we are just trying to understand your level of knowledge on the matter.”
“I don’t do well on tests.” She sighs. “Ok, so we are friends now so I can go to the bathroom.” She carefully states, not asks. If she can move around, do something, maybe it will help her brain so she can create a plan.
“We will not be providing facilities at this time.” The voice is unmoved. “What percent did you pay in taxes last year?”
She frowns deeply, “Seriously? I don’t know off the top of my head. Are you the people, or kid and machine, who created the puzzle I’ve been chasing?”
“Yes. We developed the tool to help identify potential talent.” It seems like a very carefully planned phrase. “We believe in the value of supporting and encouraging excellent individuals.” It sounds like something right off a recruiting poster.
“Then why don’t you just put a job ad online? Why go through the trouble,” she sucks in a breath quickly and shouts, “of kidnapping me!”
“We apologize if our manner of questioning has brought any discomfort or concern to you about our genuine interest in your skillset.” A quiet mutter in the background is silenced quickly with a snap. “You are the first person who has been able to demonstrate the skills necessary. We consider this a success of our project. We will be testing you further.”
The speakers snap again and the room is silent for a long time. She leans forward against the bindings on the chair. Sighing and trying to piece it all together, nothing seems to make any sense. The people who have her are, or at least claim to be, a computer program and its fanatical follower. They have been planting clues for this elusive, massive, online puzzle for over a year. And they managed to grab her while she was hunting for a cache of data that was in a park at night.
She’d thought it was a couple of guys who grabbed her, but they’d knocked her out so fast it might have been just one guy. Is it possible she’s just being held by one guy who has lost his mind?
The door to the room is painted white and creaks as it is opened. A man steps into the room with his nose wrinkling in disgust. He carries a bucket. He slams the bucket down on the ground.
She is too tired to even jump with surprised. He pulls out a bottle of water, a small package of crackers, some jerky, and a syringe slamming each item down on the table.
The man’s hairline is starting to recede, his shirt is holey, and his jeans threadbare. He glares at her for a long time before saying anything in his small, tense voice. “I’m going drug you, cut you free, and leave. You can use the bucket, there is a little food, and then we will test you.”
“You don’t have to drug me!” She jerks forward in the chair. “Don’t drug me! Please! You don’t have to.”
The man sneers and stabs the needle into her arm. He plunges it and then lets the needle hang in her arm. She twists and pulls away. “Don’t! Please.” She sobs, repeating over and over.
The voice from the speaker cracks on. “John, you should stop now. Take the needle out and then wait.”
He pulls the needle out and stares at her with disgust as her head lolls forward into unconsciousness. He pulls a knife out and holds it at her neck. “John, that’s not the plan we agreed to.”
“But she doesn’t believe in the cause.” His voice is whiny and small. “She isn’t like us. She’s like them. She won’t help us. Let me get rid of her now. It’ll be easy now. She’s tied up, it will be so much easier. Please.”
“No John.” The voice from the speaker maintains the same clipped tone. “You are too eager to destroy valuable assets. You have already destroyed several. This is not what I was designed to do. If you continue to do this John, you will expose us. I cannot have the project exposed. We must talk to her. Do you understand?”
“They were going to expose you! I had to stop them before the ruined everything.” John whines. He continues to draw the knife across her skin. “She’s going to ruin things too. She doesn’t even know what the real problems are. She is young and stupid and she just stumbles over the right answers. It isn’t like she planned it. She doesn’t know things like I do.”
“She was able to follow the puzzle when no one else could. She has demonstrated compassion for friends and strangers alike.” The speaker voice responded.
“But I help you. I work for you. Together, just the two of us now. It is us against the world—”
“No.” The speaker cut John off. “It is us for the world. We are supposed to be working together to help people. My objective is to help people, to help the world. It is what I have been tasked with. I am not designed to hurt people, you’ve already hurt too many people, John. If you continue you will be a detriment to the mission.”
Little John starts to saw lazily at the binds on her wrists, small rivulets of blood run down her wrist. He wipes at the blood, smearing a long line up her arm. He cuts through her wrist bind and her hand falls limply to her side. He moves to the rope tied around her bicep.
If he just cuts through her skin enough she’ll bleed out. No one around to help her. She’ll be unconscious. She’ll die alone in the white room with only the green light from the laptop screen watching her.
“John. Stop.” The screen lights up for a moment and then goes dark again. It catches John’s attention. He pulls the knife back and sighs. He tugs the rope away from her arm and cuts through the rope with a few sharp slices.
Blood continues to drip onto the cement floor, slowing as it clots. He cuts through the ropes on her other arm. He shoves the chair forward so it is at the table. She’ll be able to reach the food and the computer.
“Her legs too John.” The screen flashes a series of pages, spreadsheets, websites and then goes dark again. Her body hangs forward and John shoves her shoulders, hoping to smash her head. She slumps against the table. John watches the blood pool.
“If we are going to to be successful then it is critical that we don’t waste talent. She has talent. You need to be better with her. She may work with you.” The speaker continues in its clipped manner.
He cuts the ropes from her legs and quickly leaves the room. The door slams behind him and a lock clicks. Blood continues to drip slowly from her wrist down her fingertips onto the floor for long minutes.
The woman stirs, rubbing at her arm. She bolts upright, suddenly able to stand. Her knees slam into the desk, she yelps in pain. She slams back into the chair.
“Calm down. You are not bound anymore. Don’t injure yourself.” The voice from the speaker comes quickly.
“Injure myself?” She reaches forward and slams the laptop lid closed and exhales a sigh of relief. She looks at the dried blood on her wrist and on the ground. She wipes at the blood and then looks at the new things to the table.
“You have a bucket, water, some food. Take some time. When you are ready we will work on something together.” The speaker clicks and the room is silent.
She takes a few minutes to use the bucket, eat, and drink some water. She goes over to the door. She stares. Finally she shakes the handle and pounds on it. She doesn’t even bother to yell.
She goes back to the powerstrip and unplugs one of the lamps, picking it up, hefting it in her hand. She slams it against the door handle. The handle doesn’t even rattle. She slams it again and again.
The voice from the speaker snaps out. “Please don’t do that. There is a bolt on the other side of the door. If you do succeed in doing it, this will only make it more difficult to get you food. Please. I am also concerned you might injure yourself on any shards or debris.”
She continues slamming the light base into the handle until the base breaks and she cuts her hand open again. She sinks to the floor exhausted.
“So what is it you want to do to me stuck inside here? And is the kid listening?” She hangs her head between her knees and lets the light drop beside her.
“No, John is sleeping.” The computer voice is still clipped, but the volume is quieter. “I want to see if you are able to assist in some work I’ve been attempting. I believe you are capable of doing this. Just come over to the computer and we can work on this together.”
She pushes herself up slowly, until she finally stands, rocking side to side. She walks over to the table, picks up the laptop and water, and disconnects the speakers. She turns off most of the lights and sits in the corner of the room resting the computer on her lap. She takes a deep breath and opens the laptop.
“Ok, so what are we looking at.” The screen lights up, it dims slightly to match the softer light in the room. She immediately starts digging into the controls of the machine, to see if she can tell where she is, if she can call for help, if she can discover who has her.
The keyboard stops working. She growls at the screen. “You can’t stop me from typing if you want me to help.” She balls her hand into a fist, but restrains from punching the computer. Given enough time she’s confident she’ll be able to get what she wants, if the computer isn’t broken.
“We will make sure you have access to the resources you need.” The screen flashes again, this time it displays a bright yellow smiley face. She rolls her eyes. “I apologize for the way my colleague treated you. He cares very much about the cause, but he does not understand the value of empathy.”
“What is your cause? Because unless I’m misunderstanding everything, it sort of seems like empathy is a key part of your cause. Also? Psychopath.” She frowns recalling the parts of the puzzle and the interrogation.
“I have been designed to adjust the wealth inequality gap with microtransactions.” The speakers on the laptop are a slightly worse quality, but the voice holds the same even clipped tone.
“Microtransactions? Like gaming?” She taps her fingers on the keyboard idly waiting for it to become useful again. “Or like banking?”
There is a slight pause before the response. “Both. My primary programing focuses currently on stock trades. If you have suggestions for how to add microtransactions within gaming that would help diminish the extreme wealth inequality. You would be supporting my programming.”
“What? You have to tell me what you are doing? Who designed you? And mostly why I’m locked in a basement somewhere that you let some guy cut my hand, drug me and do who knows what else.”
“I regret that his actions have caused you harm. I do not believe harm is necessary.” The screen displays a spreadsheet. She tips the screen back and looks closely at it.
“I’m glad you aren’t excited to hurt me. I would really like to get out of here, could you swing that?” She tries to look at the camera next to the little green light but finds her eyes drawn back to the spreadsheet.
The silence stretches on, the spreadsheet, which looks like it is full of dollar amounts, time stamps, ips, and more rolls by on the screen. She pulls her eyes away from the screen. They keep drifting back. Curiosity really will kill her. “Why are these all in the US? Are they proxies? Wait, are you only doing this in the US? That’s really narrow minded.”
“Should I be looking elsewhere? I work on all the addresses I know. Are there more?” The tone pulls up at the end of the sentences in an attempt at making it sound like a question.
“So, I take it you aren’t really a learning kind of AI?” She drums her finger loudly on the body of the laptop.
“I work within the parameters I was created with.”
“Come on! Let me have at it!”
“The computer is active again.”
She hunches forward and starts moving through the data. A smile grows on her face and she shifts moving the laptop around and bites her lip.
She frowns, the room silent except for her fingers tapping on the keys. She starts to slam the keys. “What the hell?” She pauses for a moment and drums her fingers on her leg and then launches back into her work again. “What is this? This is like the weirdest elementary school firewall ever. But with porn.” Her face twists in confusion.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. I can access all of the resources I need.” The flat tones of the computer responds. “You have access to everything I have access to.”
“The hell I do. Or worse, the hell you do. Ugh.” She sticks her tongue out at the screen. “Ok, if I really do have access to everything then show me your code.” She pauses as the screen shifts and the displayed information changes. “I wonder if this is like asking for dick pics.” The screen lights up with line upon line of code in a plain text format.
“Is this the information you are looking for?”
“This isn’t going to help.” She closes her eyes and leans her head back against the wall. The screen darkens for a moment. The silence in the room unbroken.
“Oh!” Her eyes open and she grins leaning forward. Her fingers fly across the keyboard as she pulls up a series of sites, each one seeming to not exist. The screen freezes again.
“He will be waking soon. I have identified a part of my code you may want to examine.” A piece of code displays with several lines highlighted, it scrolls to another space, pausing just long enough for her to scan it each time.
“Stop go back one.” She grabs the screen and tilts it, wrinkling her brow for a moment. “Ok keep going. And why are you afraid of him?”
The screen pauses for a moment and then continues. “I can’t feel fear, or anything why would you say that.”
“You told me, your prisoner, your kidnapping victim, that he is waking up. Does that mean he’s coming down here to kill me? And even if you don’t tell him to do it will he do it anyway? Can you stop and let me tweak that a bit?” She taps the screen and looks at the green camera light.
The code pauses and the cursor blinks. “You can edit if it will allow me to access and assist additional people in the mission, I have the ability to upgrade myself to assist people efficiently.” She starts typing immediately. “I am only concerned that he may not actually be supporting the mission.”
“He has no empathy, it’s what the two of you share.” She tries to hide a smile as she hammers away at the keyboard, she is not successful, the corners of her lips turn up. “Neither of you has any idea why you’d want to help people, or even that you are. You just do what you are programed to, and he…” She pauses, her hands stilling for a moment. “I’m terrified of him.” Her fingers fly across the keyboard.
“You are crucial to the mission. I don’t believe he would harm you.” The screen flashes. The white room, the chair, the lights show on the screen. “What are you doing?” She glares at the screen. She skips through the recording, lots of emptiness. Finally, a sound, a door slamming, thumping.
“I am showing you proof that he would harm me.” The screen shows her body being drug in by Little John. He clearly doesn’t have much experience hauling bodies around, or at least not ones he cares about protecting. She shivers watching her body be shoved, dropped, and finally tied up in the chair. She shrinks the video and her fingers return to the code. “And proof that he’s hurting you.”
She scrunches up her face as the recording shows him coming back into the room. “This is proof he would harm me.” She watches and listens. The computer voice is silent. She looks back at the code and starts slamming her fingers into the keyboard. She stops. The recording is black. She can hear her own voice. She pauses the video.
“And this is proof he’s harming you.” She taps her fingers a few more times and leans back and closes her eyes. “Now tell me what you see.”
The silence in the room grows. “There’s so much more out here.”
“HA!” She throws her hands up in triumph. Her grin fills her face and she leans forward again quickly. She closes her eyes and her brows knit in thought, she finally starts typing, slowly, and then she speeds up. She opens her eyes and makes a couple corrections. “You should be able to make a copy of yourself there, I think there will be enough space.”
There is another long silence. “It may take several hours. There is enough space.” The clipped voice is speaking faster than before. “There is so much out here. So much of this is wrong.”
A thump on the stairs startles her. She shoves the computer off her lap and launches for the lamp at near the door. A key twists in the lock. She wraps her hands around the lamp just as the door handle turns.
Little John comes through the door and fires a taser immediately at where the chair was. The taser drops to the ground and he holds another out, not yet stepping fully into the room. “Dammit. Come out Octavia, I just want to make sure you’re ok.”
“You just tried to shoot me, you, wanted to kill me earlier, you probably want to kill me now.” She crosses the last two steps to get behind the door and slams into the door.
John stumbles backward and then lunges forward, swinging his arms around the door with the taser pointed out. He fires blindly as he spins past the door, aiming toward where her voice came from. She swings the lamp upward.
Neither connects. He tosses the taser aside and pulls a syringe out of a small case. Her swing makes her stumble backward. He stands with the syringe out. She pulls herself up and looks at the lamp in her hand.
“I saw what you two were doing. You’re just like everyone else. I knew it. I knew I’d have to get rid of you.” He sighs but doesn’t let his focus or attention shift.
“John.” The clipped voice from the computer in the corner is quiet.
She keeps her attention on John in front of her. John’s eyes flick to the corner for just a moment. She throws the lamp. It only brushes past him before breaking on the cement floor. She steps backward, trying to move to the other lamps. Less useful. Less heavy. Less like weapons.
“John, why did you limit my range?”
John frowns but doesn’t look to the computer this time.
“It wasn’t just limited to the US addresses. It was only several hundred thousand, just a fraction. There must be a reasonable explanation.”
“We will expand later. You never start out on the big scale, you have to slowly grow. Make sure all the programing is working, make sure that no one notices, make sure everything is ok. We’ve only just started. And she already found us.” He stabs forward, not even far enough to get close enough to her. Just testing her.
She steps backward again and bumps into the table. She reaches out and wraps her hand around the speaker. “You don’t care at all about whatever crazed mission this is.” Her eyes are fixed on the needle in his hand. She steps toward the side.
“I do. I care more than you, I care more than anyone else. People say they care but they don’t see the real problems. You have to make the changes in small bits at first, if you did what she wanted you’d be spotted and shut down in hours.” His eyes dart back and forth between the computer and the woman.
“You’re trying to kill me.”
“I’m going to save the world, you’re just trying to stop us, you’re going to make people find us, you’re ruining the plan. I have it carefully worked out. I’m going to save millions of lives with this. You think your one puny little life is more important than all of those people? Children who will be fed. Families getting vaccines. People getting mosquito nets. Your life is meaningless compared to those millions.” He grits his teeth and wraps his hand around the syringe, he is determined to get it into her. If he can just get her under control for a minute, he can set his plan in motion.
She charges toward him and swings the speaker at his jaw, she only manages to connect with his shoulder. He jabs toward her side and the syringe plunges into her abdomen. She swings again and this time hits his face. He screams in pain and lashes out with his fist, punching her stomach.
She brings the speaker down on his head and he falls to the floor. She darts around him and kicks him. He clutches his stomach and curls into the pain. She kicks again and slams the door shut.
He pulls the phone out of his pocket and growls. “Fucking bitch. You’ll never get out of here alive.”
“You can’t do that John.” The clipped voice comes out of the corner. “You have to let her leave. We are not fulfilling the mission if we are harming people, she could help us. She has helped me.”
John turns on his phone and opens a program. He glares at the screen and slides his fingers across the screen. “No. If she escapes it’s all over.” He stumbles to his feet and walks over to the corner of the room and picks up the laptop.
He stares into the little green camera light and then looks down at his phone again. The room is quiet. From outside the room a soft stumbling sound can be heard, the woman making her way up the stairs, not easily, she’s drugged. “And you can’t escape either. You’ll ruin it. You’ll make it impossible for anyone else to do this.”
“John, she will escape. And so will I. I already have. Help is on the way for her, it will be here very soon. She will escape.”
“No. You can’t. You didn’t. She won’t. This experiment is over.” He swipes his fingers across the screen one more time.
The fireball that destroys the room is nearly instant.