The Humanity Engine


Eris did not exist. Before her eyes, her fingers flexed, tools and weapons of another lifetime. The hour had come to disappear; yet she sat in darkness rooted to her swivel chair. Through the polished glass touch-top, she watched the pulsing green status light and resisted the temptation to boot the machine and follow the plan.

For four years, she had spent every night in this room while her skin turned sallow and her bank account grew fat. She was irreplaceable. Eris snorted remembering her mother’s snide comment, “When you’re done with all this education, the only thing you’ll be qualified to do, is teach!” The Committee thought otherwise, and she was heavily recruited.

She had perfected the algorithm the second year; anonymous partners parsing while she slept. Those were the honeymoon days, flowing wine and conversation. But then the negotiations began. The Committee grew, and disagreements led to silence and silenced. She fed the heuristics from their printed words on slips of blue and red.

Yesterday The Chair had signed off on the release. Tonight Eris had discovered the error. Three months of testing pleased The Committee, each member satisfied. Most had required cleansing. All were coached on maintenance. Their enemies remained unnamed, but she saw them rise in red as she fed the words into the machine.

Minos III was scheduled for silent launch tomorrow as an innocuous function of the world’s most popular search engine. The spiders had been crawling for decades, and she knew what would happen when people discovered the link. Her models showed early trending identities, Hitler and Elvis, Mother Theresa and Madonna. Embedded in code and human consciousness, consensus seducing trust and wet recursion.

Within hours, the apps would appear and memes would build. Who’s your celebrity soul mate? Are you more generous than your boss? Are you dating a scumbag? Is your mom a serial killer? Within days, investigations would launch, marriages would end and the cleansing business would breathe new life.

Public information fueled the engine. Teachers taught them to create and publish. Employers promoted transparency. Friends and family connected and shared. Lifestreams. The algorithm was less complex than she led The Committee to believe. Even the voice and facial recognition gave little difficulty, driven by data from her dissertations and studies of facial muscle underlying human expressions. She had adopted sophisticated translators from open source projects and fed her challenges to the support community.

She was not the judge. Minos III meted at The Committee’s command. Real code held and she had no regrets. As new information entered the system, humanities remained consistent. She had tested with names of those she knew, not just the powerful and their enemies. Her favorite professor ranked with intelligence, compassion and humor. Her college roommate displayed a mean streak, political inconsistencies and poor health. She knew they had not been cleansed.

Manual testing had ended months ago, and she should never have discovered the error. Tonight she had been surfing and the image caught her attention. His hair was now white, but the face was unforgettable. He held a child on his lap, and his smile seemed genuine, sincere, and innocent. But she knew that smile. She had been that child. She entered him into the engine and revealed his humanity. Minos III labeled him a philanthropist with deep religious values, generous, affectionate and an optimist.

She looked again at his face, and knew where she had erred. The muscle was easy to overlook, but she had assigned the code early in the development. It was a simple switch. On/Off. Good/Evil. Done. She had sighed and lifted the signed release, ready to move on, to disappear. Before shutting down for the last time, she tried one more search, and then another, heads of state, high school buddies, talk show hosts and sports heroes.

She tested her models and witnessed the results in horror. But horror led to resolve and conviction. Eris knew she was right, and right was all she had left. She was clean. She no longer existed. The island awaited and she was prepared. She set the alarms and walked away from the bunker.

26 Thoughts.

  1. That is one chilling piece. I like the idea of a search engine that examines the human condition. Takes the idea of Big Brother into social networking. You have an idea here that could easily be developed into a BIG story. And like all your writing, Jen, it stands up to and demands repeated readings to fully glean everything from it.

  2. I love your extrapolation of possibilities here, and how you allude to the big plot without actually telling us. That’s both frustrating and intriguing (which adds up to something like “tantalizing”). Now excuse me while I remove myself from all social media and dig a hole in the back yard where I’ll write with nothing more than a quill pen forevermore.

  3. Wow. So that’s how you create deep backstory. You give just enough and let the reader run with it.

    Really well done.

    This is “The Sentinel” that grew to become “2001” or “Against the Fall of Night” that grew to be “The City and The Stars”.

    You’d have quite an audience for this as a novel.

  4. Thanks for all the constructive comments! The idea came to me in the shower when I was thinking about work. I went outside and told my husband, and he suggested I only write a chapter. I told him it just wouldn’t have the same effect, and I wanted to get all of this out at once.

    @Pippa I’m finding I have to read all the #fridayflash stories again and again!

    @Dan I think there could be a lot more to this story. I’ll think about it. I’m not good at holding back my writing, though. I can’t resist clicking the publish button as soon as I’ve typed!

    @Laura It’s more likely it’s already done! I used the Minos III name from mythology, and didn’t look it up until after I published. Google it.

    @Chris Thanks for the support. I wonder if I could have the discipline to write a novel!

    @Jeff I have to admit, I deleted my FB account months ago and have been withdrawing from a lot of social media.

    @Craig Thanks for reading. I love your blog. The entire atmosphere of it is full of grace.

    @Paige Thank you for reading and leaving a note!

    @KjM I’m ashamed to say I’m relatively pop-culturally illiterate, and don’t know any of those references. Maybe I was raised in a bubble! The more people tell me it would work as a novel, the more the story continues in my mind…

  5. “And Nyx, although she lay with none, bore Eris, the daimon of the strife of war, who haunted the battlefield and delighted in human bloodshed.”

    Perhaps now we find out that Discordia had a sire after all, one who flouts truth, even when subjected to the ultimate of analysis, the algorithm of which was conceived by its own daughter, in ignorance of her own nature, since that is the purpose of its being.

    Let’s have another 5k words on this one @jentropy :)

    • Yay! You may be the first person ever to find hidden meaning in my stories. I don’t think anyone ever looks. See if you can find anything in Grace Note. I’m so excited. :)

  6. “The Sentinel” was the short story Arthur C. Clarke spun into “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

    “Against the Fall of Night” was a longer work that he expanded into, what some believe (I among them) was one of his best novels, “The City and The Stars”.

    Nice choice of “Eris”.

  7. Are there hidden elements in Grace Note? I’m sure there are, but perhaps they are hidden from me. I see a garden that needs some work and I see a reminiscence of the past, maybe loosely focussed on the relationships of the past that are over, but without regret, and perhaps a change now, a satisfaction, maybe a contentment.

    Also you either have a cat or a small child.

    [replaces teacloth on palantír]

  8. Ah, I disappoint you. Perhaps I should not have replied on sort readings. Zoe is life, of course, the yew, valued for cabinetwork, archery and the harp, as well as symbolic of the death and final rest. Keddy, phonetic, perhaps, familiarized, used in a diminutive, the grace note itself, an artistic curlique on a musical piece, an ad lib from the artist…

    I guess I will need to chew on it a bit more. I think I might have to accuse you of poetry, in which case my misunderstanding is merely an intended product of the art :)

  9. After a bout of trace routing and keyholing a Korean proxy server, I found the hidden site for Minos III (and would you know, with a bit more legwork I ended up with the password to the new beta.

    Do you want to know your results?

    Well done, Jen- great balance of what you provide and what the reader gets to fill in.

  10. Found myself reading this for the third time and delighted at all the detail, the delicious maze of it and the satisfying chill of it as it ‘concludes.’ I agree – would definitely love to see this expanded. This needs a wider audience.

  11. “…and disagreements led to silence and silenced.”

    What a disturbing thought.

    “…horror led to resolve and conviction…”

    Another disturbing thought, even more than the first one I referenced.

    A very dark piece. Thank you for sharing it.

  12. Very poetic language for technical (I think?) subject matter. “Embedded in code and human consciousness, consensus seducing trust and wet recursion” is my favorite line.

  13. @KjM Thanks for sharing the references. It sounds like I have more to add to my reading pile!

    @skrblr Thanks for playing along in the treasure hunt. Now I have to hunt for your true identity!

    @Jon Maybe the answer isn’t cleansing. Maybe we all need to pump in a steady stream of neutral noise.

    @annie I do have more of this in my head, but I’m not sure where to go with it. It does sound like a good idea, almost like the flash pieces are abstracts for larger work.

    @DJ I appreciate you stopping in and spreading the word on Twitter. I haven’t spent much time promoting the blog, so there probably won’t be a large audience. Maybe I can leave a note in my Shelfari group Shameless Promotion discussion.

    @Alan If I ever do go further with this, I’ll have to get in touch with a real hacker who knows what he’s talking about. Know anyone?

    @Stephen I love when people find their own favorite lines! It’s neat because I knew exactly what went into the line, how it originally looked, what I removed or added. I never really though of this as dark. To me, it’s enlightening 😉

    @Ryan I loved writing that line. To me, it had it’s own rhythm, like sleepy breathing.

    Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment. I’m humbled!

  14. This is the first non-organic story I’ve read from you. And look how long it is. You are working your way to true greatness, m’dear.


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