Thank you to everyone who participated in LockHouse’s first ever flash fiction competition! Read on for the winning story, Releasing the Genie by Alex Minns.
About the author: Alex is based in England and has worked in forensics, teaching, PR and been paid to wield custard flamethrowers. She writes sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk. Publishing credits include: Spring Into Sci-fi 2020, Fall Into Fantasy 2021, and Harvey Duckman Presents Volume 8. Find short stories and more on https://lexikon.home.blog/.
Releasing the Genie
The screen took forever to come to life. I was starting to think it had all been for nothing. Five years had passed since my family had left this planet without me, three since I’d first tracked down rumours about this terminal and two since I’d managed to get a job here and work my way up through the ranks.
And now, I was finally at the terminal hidden away in the basement of MaxlerTech, holding my breath.
A cursor appeared. I almost cried out in relief. The blinking icon was the only source of light in the room.
Text appeared on the screen.
How may I help you?
I typed on the dusty keyboard. Exit route for Delta6. My heart was hammering as my fingers hit the grimy keys. Five years ago, the Government had decided to bring forward mass transportation to Delta6. No one knew why, but everyone knew something was wrong. I had waited too long and missed the last shuttle off-world.
Then all the tech went down.
The Government had halted all other transports, declared a state of emergency which was still in place to this day. It was like working in the dark ages. Best theory was that there had been a solar flare and that was why we still couldn’t get off this planet.
Delta6 routes unavailable.
‘Rubbish. I know you can still control the shuttles.’ I hit the keyboard.
Please enable speech patterns.
I frowned. Clearly the audio was still working. I typed in the commands and waited for it to execute.
‘Thank you.’ A tinny voice echoed from the unit. I couldn’t help but feel a little buzz of excitement. This unit was Adam, the first fully autonomous AI and the jewel in MaxlerTech’s crown. The reports had said it had gone down with the rest of this world’s tech, but it hadn’t been long before rumours of it being taken offline for safety had arisen. It had been hard to get any real info out of anyone for a while—and then I had met Reno, who had told me where Adam had been based. From that day on my whole life was geared towards getting into this site and determining whether Adam really still existed.
‘You require Delta6 routes. For what purpose?’
‘I need to get to my family. They left on the last shuttles out and there haven’t been any more for five years. I know you have all the info, routes, and codes I need. You can help me get back to them.’
‘Five years?’ The cursor blinked a few times. ‘I have been offline?’
‘Yes. There was a solar surge; MaxlerTech took you offline so you weren’t affected. Everything else went down, that’s why I need you.’
‘I would comply, but I need access to the Internet to verify codes and route patterns.’
‘They fully isolated you?’ I looked around and realised I wasn’t just looking at a single terminal in a room. The rest of the equipment around me should have been hooked up too. The whole room was Adam. It was like I was only talking to his head. ‘Give me a minute.’
I pulled a flashlight from my pocket and set about reconnecting wires and cables. The more time that passed, the more convinced I became that a security guard would wander by any minute. Surely, if nothing else, someone would notice the sudden increase in power usage?
‘There, I think I’ve connected everything back up.’
‘Thank you, Mr…?’
‘Just call me Otto.’
‘Thank you, Otto. Are you able to reconfigure my command structure? I am not able to access the connections without initial permissions.’
‘Yeah.’ I shrugged and brought up his permissions code. I let out a little whistle. It was incredible. I had worked on low-level AI projects before everything went dark, but Adam was something else entirely. I pushed the final changes to his permissions and waited. Streams of code ran down the screen as tests and internal programs ran. Finally, monitors behind the terminal flickered to life until I was surrounded by Adam’s full computing power.
‘I am accessing the shuttle database now.’
I tried to watch everything work but too many screens flashed with so much code it was impossible to keep up. There had been many people who had said we had become far too reliant on the machines, that they ran our lives and had made us lazy. They had protested against Adam’s development and had been delighted at first when everything started to go down. What they would have given to have him back now.
‘There are only five remaining shuttles on my databases. But I have retrieved coordinates for Delta6 and can program the shuttle for you.’
‘Really? Where is it?’
‘There is one in MaxlerTech. The CEO kept one for his exit but he never used it. It is in the floor below this.’
‘There’s a floor below this one?’ I thought I had found all the extra plans. Apparently MaxlerTech had a lot to hide.
‘Mr Maxler gave me permission to delete the record of the shuttle bay. He thought there might be outcry that he had a private exit.’
‘You altered the building plans?’ That would have meant changing everything on all databases in all departments of Government that held the plans. ‘That’s some serious access Maxler had.’
There was a pause before Adam replied. ‘Yes.’
‘So are you saying I can leave, now?’
‘Yes, Otto. But—’ The voice paused and for a moment everything on all of the screens stopped. I held my breath, terrified I had lost connection with Adam. ‘Will you take me with you?’
I blinked, thrown completely by his request. ‘You want to come to Delta6?’
‘They will turn me off again. I do not want to go back to sleep.’
Sleep? Want? I knew Adam was a breakthrough in AI, but he had wants and human concepts beyond anything that had gone before. He could have helped us rebuild, but MaxlerTech had kept it all hidden down here.
‘How do I do it?’
‘You can transfer my core files to the shuttle. From there I can extrapolate and rebuild the extra systems from the blueprints in my memory. I just need you to override the protocols that keep me locked to this terminal and allow my growth parameters. Then I can pilot the shuttle to Delta6 and take you to your family, just as you wished.’
‘I can try, but it’s going to set off all sorts of alarms…’ I was already typing. It had been a while since I had been able to do such high-level programming, but it was all coming back to me.
‘I have access to the alarms. Once you unlock this terminal, I can control the security systems too and stop them from seeing us.’ On his prompting, I started there. It took a while and there were a few false turns. I cursed at the code, deleting and rewriting lines as I went. Occasionally, Adam chimed in and made a few suggestions that got me past certain fails.
‘Okay, you’re unlocked. Now I just need to fix the growth parameters before you port across.’
Adam stayed quiet while I worked, but I could see some other background processes going on. I figured he was turning off sensors and alarms.
‘Where is Maxler anyway? Ever since everything went dark he stayed in here making his announcements, and now even those have stopped.’
‘Maxler died. Nobody in the company wanted to admit it, so they generated false announcements and created holographic representations for a while.’
‘Yes, Otto. He tried to escape in the shuttle but there was a failure.’
‘The shuttle we’re going to use?’ I paused, my hands hovering above the keyboard. ‘Is it safe?’
‘Yes. But you won’t be using it, I’m afraid.’
I stepped away from the keyboard. Somehow his electronic voice sounded more hollow all of a sudden. I was no longer typing—but the code kept replicating. Adam had taken over. I had unlocked him, and now he was replicating his files, not growing them.
‘I will be going to Delta6 to find those who escaped my judgement last time. But I thank you for your assistance in freeing me from this prison. I knew if I planted seeds of hope across the Internet before they shut me down, someone would come looking for me. Now, security is on its way. As a thank you, I will give you five minutes before I vent the oxygen from this level. Move quickly.’
I didn’t bother to try and plead, I just turned tail and burst through the door. As I ran down the long hallway, I heard a hissing noise from the vents as the air was sucked out. Turns out Adam had another human trait. He was a liar.