No one wanted to open the door, so they asked Cartesiana to randomly pick one student and it turned out to be him.
Of course it was him.
Santiago bowed his head as the robotic, femalesque voice mispronounced every syllable in his name once again. It was already the fourth time that the algorithm had chosen him when asked to sort someone for a disagreeable task, and they had only been at the Descartes Institute for two weeks by now.
“Damn, fucking Carty is racist as hell,” said one of his classmates, and everyone laughed.
Of course they did.
Santiago forced himself to giggle as well. Humor was a sign of intelligence, and refusing to laugh could have finished confirming he wasn’t as clever as the rest of them—the final nail in a coffin he had driven himself into when he casually mentioned he was born in The Barrens.
When the laughter died down and the school halls were silent again, Santiago took a step forward, stretched out his arm, and placed his trembling hand on the latch. Then, after taking one last deep breath, he opened Aaron’s testing chamber just to find out he was already dead.
Tim walked away, pushing through the whispering crowd.
Behind, in the distance, he could still hear Santiago’s voice confirming over and over again that Aaron no longer had vital signs.
Someone in the crowd told Cartesiana to inform the incident to The Civilization and ask for help, but Tim knew things didn’t work that way. That information would only get lost in the inbox along with thousands of supplies requests and misbehavior reports from hundreds of different schools, and it could take days to be read.
Tim headed to the common room and turned on the first speaker he found. Then he asked Cartesiana to connect him with user support and pressed zero to talk to a human being.
Any human being.
Even if it was him.
Emery entered the supply room, took a white sheet, and returned.
Eventually, the crowd had dissipated and everybody went back to their rooms, or the library, or their own testing chambers. No one at the Descartes Institute was really a friend to anyone, so she couldn’t blame them. But she either couldn’t let Aaron as he was now.
So she knelt down next to him, covered him with the white sheet, and said a little prayer for him. Then she went to her room, wondering what would ever happen to her if she also died in that place, realizing that probably no one would cover her with a sheet or pray for her.
“Cartesiana did it,” Matthew said what everyone was thinking.
The crowd gasped and Cartesiana didn’t deny it, but someone else did it.
“The algorithm didn’t do it,” said that filthy boy from The Barrens. “He suffocated to death, I checked him.” When a human finally took the call, the students were told to gather in the common room and wait until the help arrived, so now Matthew was stuck with the less enlightened.
“And who do you think suffocated him?”
“No one did. The space in those chambers is ridiculously small, with only a little air vent. It was a matter of time.”
“So do you want us to think it’s a coincidence that it happened to the one with the worst grades?” The murmurs got louder and louder. “Well then, let’s ask directly. Hey Carty, did you kill Aaron?”
People around sighed in relief, but Matthew wasn’t yet satisfied. “Who kill him, then?”
“Ignorance,” Cartesiana said, and the crowd began muttering again.
“Can you tell us what happened?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell anyone what happens inside other students’ testing chambers.”
The first time Santiago entered his testing chamber, about two weeks before Aaron’s death, it took him almost three hours to get out.
Each session was meant to last one hour, but having grown up in The Barrens, Santiago had never used a keyboard and he had a hard time trying to memorize where each letter was. The chamber was barely big enough for a chair and two desks. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all metal, and there was only one little vent and a door that wouldn’t open until he finished the test.
After three maddening hours locked in the cage, Santiago stopped caring about the scores and began answering whatever came into his head so he could end it and escape.
The last problem was practical.
Cartesiana told him to leave the computer and turn around, towards the biggest desk. Then a small door opened, and an elevator lifted up a tray full of chemical reagents.
“You shall prepare sodium acetate,” the algorithm said.
Santiago smiled, relieved.
He knew sodium acetate was CH3COONa and he could deduce how to get it done. Chemistry was a matter of balance, so he only had to find out which reagents had the same symbols as the CH3COONa and mix them together, and it seemed like the NaHCO3 and the CH3COOH were the winners—whatever would happen with the remaining C, H, and O will remain a mystery.
Shortly after, Santiago crossed the door leaving behind a glass with bubbly foam.
Tim stared at the prompt catalog for a long, long while.
He had always dreamed of spending an evening listening to music, playing video games, or watching a movie, and now he finally could he didn’t know how to. He did know how to select a prompt, set his preferences, and wait for the algorithm to generate the thing he wanted to waste his time in, of course he did. What he didn’t know was how to waste his time.
Maybe he would never be able to enjoy a thing.
Maybe he had already lost that chance.
Tim was about to turn his laptop off when Santiago opened the door and entered the room that they had been assigned to share. He stared at Tim with his big brown eyes, then at the prompt catalog, and then at Tim again. “I’ve never had a chance to watch something done by an algorithm, you know,” he finally said.
“Oh well, I can show you if you want to.”
“Only if you have time,” Santiago shrugged. “I don’t want to interrupt your study time.”
“No way. I have all the night to waste.”
Emery finished her four daily mandatory study sessions and went straight to the supply room to grab a chair, a tray, a pack of white paper, and a box of printer ink cartridges, and took it all to her room. That night she was going to paint.
“I can hand you whatever you need,” Cartesiana said.
She taped four sheets of paper together and hung them over the chair’s back to simulate a canvas, then bit the cartridges and spilled the ink on the tray to make a palette.
“I can paint whatever you need,” Cartesiana insisted.
“I can do it faster and better than you.”
“I don’t care.”
“Try me, tell me what you want to paint.”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Because I want to.”
“That sounds pointless to me.”
“Well, you sound pointless to me, and I don’t really want to hear you anymore.”
Then there was silence and Cartesiana never spoke to Emery again.
Matthew leaned forward, turned his head to both sides as if he wanted to check that no one was coming, and whispered. “I think I know who came from The Barrens.”
His classmates chuckled.
The study group met every night in the common room to exchange information, whether it was about their exams or about the other students’ flaws.
“We already know,” answered someone in the back. “Santiago, aunt Carty’s favorite.”
“I’m not talking about him,” Matthew snorted. “What would be the point of sharing something we all already know?” He made a little pause to make sure everyone was paying attention. “Aaron. When he goes to the library he always grabs a book, never a computer.”
“Holy damn, that’s true! That’s fucking true!”
“How come I never noticed?”
He got them where he wanted them.
Then, someone else intervened. “That girl Emery is weird as fuck too. I’ve seen her going in and out of the supplies room with trays and ink cartridges.”
“Well, that doesn’t means she’s from The Barrens. Maybe she’s just trying to repair something she broke.”
The boys cracked up.
“Who do you think will be the first one to go?”
“Well, why don’t we ask the one who knows best?” Matthew said, and then he raised his head. “Hey, Carty, who do you think will be the first one out of the game?”
“Considering grades and response time,” Cartesiana replied. “Aaron.”
Right after the police picked up the body and left, Santiago returned to Aaron’s testing chamber to take one last peek inside.
“Come on, man.” Tim ran behind him. “You’re just gonna get in trouble.”
But Santiago didn’t care.
He was always in trouble, anyway.
Cartesiana had something against him, and his classmates were always waiting for him to make a mistake so they could mock him, and The Civilization was just waiting for him to fail to send him back to The Barrens. At this point, he only wanted to know what had killed Aaron so it couldn’t kill him next.
“Here, look at this.” Santiago pointed at the biggest table in the chamber. Screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, and what seemed to be an engine still on top. “It always ends the test with a practical problem, and it seems Aaron was trying to make this thing work.”
“Oh,” Tim muttered, his eyes opened wide.
“A combustion reaction in a badly ventilated environment… I think that’s the way you get carbon monoxide.”
Santiago turned to him. “Can it kill people?”
“I think so.”
“My father is a tech guy at Cartesiana’s. I didn’t want to say anything because the jerks might think I have some sort of unfair advantage and start messing with me, but it seems such a banal thing to worry about now, doesn’t it?” Tim rubbed his nape. “Well, Cartesiana works like a cartesian plane. When you ask it to do anything where it had to choose between many options, it will arrange them all based on two factors, feasibility, and commonness. Do you get it?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Santiago said. “But what does it have to do?”
“I think Cartesiana is testing us with problems that are feasible but uncommon, probably to prevent us to repeat problems we might have solved before, to catch us off guard. That’s also why you’re sorted so often when it’s requested to pick a random name—most names in the old school records that Cartesiana feeds on are of white kids.”
“So I’m not crazy?”
“Not at all, and you were also right about death being a matter of time. Cartesiana is bringing back practical problems that human teachers and professors discarded decades ago because they were dangerous.”
At first, Emery thought the worst, that Cartesiana had already killed someone else, that it was actually murdering them one after another and she could be the next. But the knot in her stomach loosened as she realized that Tim and Santiago were the ones who asked everyone to go to the common room. They explained how Cartesiana worked, and that it was testing them with practical problems that were potentially lethal because of the way it had been coded.
“Well, if that’s the problem then it’s simple to stop it, we just have to solve wrongly the practical problems at the end of each test,” Emery said. “Even if the answer is wrong, Cartesiana will open the door and let us out.”
“So are you suggesting us to fail on purpose now?” Matthew snorted. “How do we know it’s not a plan to put yourself ahead?”
The sheep bleated, outraged.
“Answering right might get us killed, you jerk!”
“Answering wrong can get us expelled, and there’s no proof these assholes here are telling the truth. As far as we know, Cartesiana could be simply eliminating the weakest of us.”
Emery clenched her fists so tightly that her nails dug into her palms. If she hadn’t seen their frightened faces when they found Aaron, she could have sworn they longed to be dead.
Every time his aching eyes began to droop, Matthew would get up, drag his numb feet all the way to the kitchen, and drink a cup of coffee hot enough to burn his throat. And by the time the heat reached his gut and his legs started to loosen up, he would be already heading back to his desk. Then, once and over again, he would open the same old book and read the same brittle pages, convincing himself that this time he was actually understanding what he read.
Earning his place in The Civilization while his weakest classmates complained.
“It’s no use.”
“I don’t understand what I’m reading anymore.”
“I’m just going to bed.”
If they couldn’t do the bare minimum, they didn’t deserve the chance they had received.
The chance to learn.
The chance to know.
The chance to belong.
They deserved to be sent to The Barrens with all the people who had no use, no worth.
Santiago washed the wound with the aged juice before suturing, and then again when he finished. He had observed, over the years, that it often helped to decrease the infection risk.
“What a smart boy you have here, Carmelita,” the scavenger said. Santiago’s mother was standing close to the boy as he bandaged the patient’s leg, holding the candle for him to see in the darkness. Supervising. “You should send him to one of those schools. It seems like he can actually make it, you know.”
She nodded in response.
Santiago didn’t say a word, he just bowed his head to avoid his mother’s insistent gaze.
Every year, at about that date, they would come to The Barrens to harvest the teenagers that had managed to learn the ancient art of literacy by themselves, and would invite them to The Civilization to take the entry test. Because there wasn’t, of course, a greatest proof of human worth than that of having reached knowledge against every odd.
When Mother approved Santiago’s work, the scavenger pointed at his bag. “There, pick your pay, boy.” Santiago stood, opened it, and peeked inside.
“Look, mijo.” Mother grabbed and leafed through an old math book, with the yellowish pages full of silverfish holes and most problems already solved. “For you to study for the exam.” She put it in his hands. “And you can take me as your Plus One.”
That was something he couldn’t turn down.
The first thing Father did every night when returning home was to turn the computer on. He asked the domestic algorithm to defrost his dinner and hand him the cigarettes, and then he checked the prompt catalog and selected a videogame or movie for the algorithm to generate. That night, much to Tim’s chagrin, Father had decided to play a videogame, which will take up to an hour to be completed.
That meant the study session would be long.
“Let me see.” Father pulled Tim’s notebook and revised if he had correctly balanced the forces on a fictitious beam. “No, no.” He clicked his tongue. “The downward forces here are greater than the upward ones, don’t you see? Your beam is going down, like this…” Father’s lit cigarette descended over Tim’s right hand.
The boy gulped and resisted the impulse to cry out.
That would only make it worse.
“How do you expect to be accepted in a school like this? How do you expect to get a job like this?” Father lifted the cigarette and turned the page. “Don’t think I’m going to keep you here if you don’t get a job.”
“I know you won’t,” responded Tim with a wobbly voice.
People with jobs could dispose of their Plus One as they wanted, and Father hadn’t hesitated in sending Mother to The Barrens when she refused to give him another child.
Evelyn opened her letter and immediately burst into tears. Emery rubbed her sister’s back and told her that everything would be fine, but deep down, she also wanted to cry.
Now everything depended on her, and it wasn’t fair.
Their parents had done everything right, or at least they had tried. Planned only one child who turn out to be twins, and even then, they still had two spots for a Plus One each. The girls had grown up with the rare privilege of learning what they wanted to learn and being who they wanted to be. And they were artists. They spent their childhood days dancing, and singing, and painting, and writing, and they told each other that one day they would be remembered for creating in a time when nothing was being created.
But then their father died in a work accident and their world fell apart. They hadn’t even finished grieving when their mother told them at least one of them had to pass the entry test because she could only have one Plus One.
Emery took a deep breath and opened her letter.
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Descartes Institute of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
Then she smiled, but she wasn’t happy. She just found it funny that they had felt the need to clarify that they were a STEM-learning institute as if they could be anything else.
Matthew’s hatred for The Barrens could only be topped by that he felt for his parents, the ones who had dragged him to that hellish hole. Father could have had the decency to let his children fight for the remaining Plus One spot when his useless wife lost her job, but he had taken the coward’s route and condemned all to exile so they could exist together in misery.
Now they had to boil their water before drinking, and they had to warm their house with oil lamps and candles, and they had to read the pre-made books that the scavengers found in the dumps because they didn’t have algorithms to make them. They had no jobs or money and the only way to get food was to hunt it, or cultivate it, or barter it.
Matthew didn’t deserve to pay for his family’s futility.
He was smart.
He was productive.
He belonged to The Civilization.
And when he finally received his acceptance letter, he left without saying goodbye and never looked back.
Deep down, Santiago knew that one day he would regret having helped the jerks who had always messed with him, but he also feared the quilt would haunt his dreams if he let them exhaust themselves to death.
It all started when he offered them infusions and herbal teas to help them sleep and calm their stomach ache. At first, they mocked him, of course they did, but little by little they began coming when their hairs fell, and their skins itched, and their hands began to shake. He treated them with whatever he had at hand and then send them to bed, and when they woke up he gave them water with salt so they would get thirsty and drink even more.
And as the days passed and turned into weeks, he began wondering how great The Civilization truly was, if the ones who had been raised there didn’t even know they needed water and rest to live.
“I think I did it,” Tim whispered. He stared at his screen for minutes long, reading his code up and down once and over again until he let himself accept that it was the best he could ever do. “I think I did it,” he repeated, this time strong and clear, turning his laptop towards Santiago so he could see.
“What’s that?” Santiago squinted.
“A patch that can fix Cartesiana’s murderous bug. I think. I hope.”
“So it’s over now?” Santiago’s baggy eyes shone.
“No man, I still have to hack the system and change the code. But it could take weeks to find the right moment because—” Tim stopped talking as he realized that being expelled was a very stupid thing to be scared of when there were lives on the line.
He stayed quiet for a while, thinking about his future, about his past. He looked at the scars on his arms, then at his reflection on the black screen of the now-suspended machine, and then at Santiago, frowning and confused by his side.
“You know what? I’ll do it this week, as soon as I can.”
Then there was a little silence until Tim could find the words he wanted to tell. “It’s just—” He bowed his head. “My father is an asshole and he sent my mother there, and I really wanted to make it and bring her back as my Plus One.”
“Hey, but that’s a good thing! No, no, don’t look at me that way, I know what I say. My mother is there as well, you know, so it’s not that terrible if end up going back, because I know I’ll be reuniting with her. Look at it this way, it doesn’t matter if you make it or not, you guys will be together again.”
Then Tim smiled, caressed his scars one last time, and raised his head.
Right after she completed all the theoretical questions, and before starting the practical problem, Emery stood, took her toolbox, and walked towards the door. It took her almost half an hour, but after trying with several screwdrivers, and bradawls, and pliers, she finally found a way to pick the lock without touching the wires that triggered the alarms.
Emery smiled for the first time in days.
She hurried to the common room to tell anyone that it was over, that they were safe. But hand on latch she remembered their laughs, and their whispers, and their indifference, and as she realized they had already made a choice she turned around and walked away.
They had chosen knowledge over everything else, and in knowledge they shall rest.
Matthew rubbed his eyes, still convinced he was just so tired he was reading wrong.
But he wasn’t.
The practical problem for the last study session of the day was to synthesize phosphine.
It was not like he couldn’t do it. No, of course he could. He had jars with water, and aluminum phosphide, and calcium phosphide, and potassium hydroxide, and phosphonium iodide. He had what he needed and he knew how to do it.
The problem was that phosphine was lethally toxic and had a slight tendency to explode in contact with air. Or maybe not. Maybe he was just too sleepy when studied that chapter of the chemistry book and he misunderstood everything.
After all, why would Cartesiana ever want to kill him?
He was among the best students at the Descartes Institute.
He would study every day until his head ached, and until his eyes were sore, and until the blood rose from his stomach to his throat and he had to swallow it all.
He was the one who knew it all, and knew it better, and knew it more.
He belonged to The Civilization and not to The Barrens.
Not to The Barrens.
No, Cartesiana didn’t have a reason to get rid of him.
Cartesiana knew best.
Abigail Guerrero (she/her) is a Latina, aroace, and ESL author from Mexico. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies Bloodless: An Anthology of Blood-free Horror and Un Río de Muchas Voces: Una Antología de Letras del Puerto, and in the literary magazines Toil & Trouble and All Existing Literary Magazine.
You can find her on Twitter as: @_gail_guerrero