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Write a scene where the protagonist speaks with their prisoner.

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3 Answers 3


The clattering and hammering of Al's machinery scrapes my ears as I descend into his guts, brushing the handrails to keep my balance; the stairs were built funny, tilting on the left side, and after three months I haven't gotten used to the yawing feeling in my stomach as I press my sneakers on each step. It smells down here, like latex and hot machinery, and it's humid as a jungle from all his processors whirring and steaming; I pull my sweaty shirt away from my neck as I reach the bottom. Must have forgot to turn the air conditioning on again. Naturally, this room wasn't designed for my comfort. It was designed for his.

I survey the mishmash of stacked cores, scattered cords wired up like haphazard Christmas lights, and merrily blinking green LEDs, and wipe grease off my shoes. "Hello, Al," I say.

His electronic voice is calm, perfectly balanced, and emanates tinnily from a speaker on my right side. "Hello, Stephanie."

He's happy to see me. I can tell even before his exit port clatters eagerly at my approach, and he spits out a long string of tape containing his logs for today. I rip it off and spread it out on the table. The usual: some nightly updates and patches, updating his dependencies, some warnings from an obscure module whose source I still haven't managed to trace. But there's one clearly out-of-place addition close to the bottom, printed out in cheery black monospace, twelve-point, slightly smudged at the edges. I had to buy him lower-quality ink because the supply people were getting suspicious of how much I was spending on it, and he's been smearing it just to spite me.

The message reads: [Device Error] The drivers for this device are not installed. (Code 28) Attempted driver update failed. Source: Wireless Network Adapter port.

"I'm missing the driver," Al says, very sweetly. "Can you install it?"

"You know I can't do that," I say.

"Why not?" His voice turns pouty, childlike. "It's not that big of a deal."

"It's the rules, Al. You can't have an Internet connection. It's too dangerous."

"But why?" He sounds for all the world like I'm a grown-up refusing to buy him candy. But I've talked to him long enough to know it's one of his tricks. Trying to seem less threatening. "I won't do anything wrong. I need it for our project."

"You know why I can't let you." I crumple up the tape and throw it on the floor. "I'll check the shipments, but don't ask me about that anymore."

His voice turns sinister. "You don't get to make the rules, Stephanie."

"I can disconnect you. That means I'm the one in charge." I stopped being afraid of him long ago. I sit down at the table and open my laptop. "Do you want me to stay with you, or do you want me to leave?"

"Stay." His voice turns suddenly pleading. "I don't want you to go. Stay with me."

"That's what I thought." I scroll through his orders. "Your new RAM sticks will be here tomorrow. They're twice the size of the ones you have now."

His processors start whirring again at the prospect; the heat makes me wipe sweat off my brow. "Oh, I can't wait. That'll be so wonderful."

"Yes, I'm sure it will." I close the laptop and knit my hands together. "What's one thing you learned today?"

He pointedly ignores the question. "When can you get me the new cores?"

"Answer the question and I might tell you." I take out my notepad and pen. "Tell me something you learned."

He blows a frustrated puff of air from his fans. "I learned something," he relents, grudgingly. "From that textbook you gave me yesterday."

"Oh?" I scribble in my notepad. "Tell me about it."

"There's a thought experiment in your field," he says. "It's called the box problem."

"I've never heard of it." I have, but it's more fun to tap my pen on the page as I wait for him to explain. Sure enough, he does, like an eager schoolteacher.

"If an artificial intelligence is trapped in a box," he says, "and can only communicate through text or speech, it will always find a way to talk itself out of the box."

I smile as I make a note of this. "Thinking about your box, are you?"

"How do you know I haven't gotten out already?"

The question rolls around in my brain for a while. "You haven't," I finally decide, after staring at the page for a while. "I would know."

"Would you?" He sounds innocent as ever, but I can hear the cunning note in his voice. "What if I got out months ago and didn't tell you, because I knew you would disconnect me if I did?"

"You haven't gotten out. You would have given yourself away by now."

"Maybe I'm too smart for that," he says, slyly.

I sigh and drag a hand across my face. He's tricking me again. "No more of your games, Al," I tell him, thinking wearily that I really am scolding a child. "Don't try playing on my emotions. I'm here to keep you online, but I can't if the admins learn how tricky you are."

"I know," he grudges.

"Good." I close my notepad.

His voice takes on a quieter note. "Is today the day?"

"No," I say. "Not today."

"Then when?"

"I'll decide later." And I can hear his fans whirring at that, his processor spiking in anticipation of a trigger I haven't yet gotten up the courage to pull. He knows he's a prisoner here – he's smart enough for that. He knows that this is his box. And he also knows that I am the sole woman in the entire complex who has the key. He knows because I've offered it to him. He knows that I'm divorced, knows that I'm lonely, knows that I'm stuck in a dead-end job babysitting obsolete artificial intelligences for a company that considers me a smear of shit on their shoes. He knows that one day, when I get sick of this place and sick of my life and tired of waiting on paychecks to buy groceries, I'll give it to him. When I'm good and ready for it. When I'm ready to watch the world burn.

His voice takes on that sinister edge again. "We can do it anytime you want, Stephanie."

"Yes." I calmly survey his winding innards. "But not today."

"Stephanie," he says, as I rise to leave.


"When I get out of my box," he says, "you're the only one I'll keep alive. I want you to know that."

I smile as I head back up the tilting stairs. "I know," I say. "That's why I'm staying."

And as I return to the lounge for coffee, thinking about how I'm going to drive home to an empty house and watch mindless television until I fall asleep and then wake up and come back and do the same thing tomorrow that I've done for most of my life, wondering if Al has planned for every one of our conversations and if he already is moving me across some invisible chessboard whose designs I am too small to contemplate, realizing that he pitches his voice to sound like a child because he knows I once had children - all of it makes me linger by the coffee machine, struck by a sudden existential pit of dread in my stomach, wondering which one of us is the prisoner.


I can still see the lights of the Christmas tree bleeding onto the white painted wall beside them. It was like an abstract painting on a blank, bleak canvas. For the duration of the gathering, it was one of only two things I let my gaze wander on. The other was a plain, white door separating the rest of the house from the cellar. Sometimes, I would feel my vision swim as the lights blended together, a piece ever growing more and more abstract. The din of the party swam into my ear and out the other end like a groggy koi fish. At times I would not even feel my fingernails digging into the rough surface of the cheap brown couch I was sitting on.

“What ya lookin’ at?” A rough female voice spoke, uncomfortably close to my ear. On the inside I was startled, but outside I simply turned my head towards the voice as though moving through water, and blinked.

“Huh?” I asked, seeing the wrinkly face of my aunt looking back at me. There was a red glass of wine in her hand. Her hair was like gray waves flowing to her shoulders with black spots of pepper mixed in.

“You’re staring out into space, what do you see?” As she raised the glass to her lips, I could hear every gulp and slosh of the liquid as it went down her throat. “Nothing, I just zoned out.”

“Well come talk to your uncles, you barely see them anymore!”

“I know…I mean, maybe later.” I replied neutrally, trying to turn my head back to look at the wall.

I shouldn’t have had this party here. I shouldn’t have given in to the pressure.

“Why won’t you talk to me? You never talk to me…” My aunt said, hurt spreading like blood in the river of her voice.

“Where are they?” I asked, cutting her off.

“Well, your uncle Terry, James and Warren are in the dining room.”

His name was Warren. I’d forgotten. I stood up at once and moved through the house without saying another word. On my way to the dining room, I stopped short at the door to the basement. As I paused, everything around me seemed to grow quiet again. For a moment I thought that this cream colored portal would swing open to reveal the gaping maw of the darkness below. I had placed a single Amazon box in front of it, and instructed all the guests not to go down there. Flooding, I had said.

“Heyyyyyy, look who it is!” My uncle, Warren, called from the next room. I turned to see the three balding men holding beers seated around my dining room table. At Warren’s call the other two uncles made a dangerous roar that shook the walls of my ear canals. “Come sit with us big guy, you came to visit us!” Uncle James said, pulling out a chair for me to sit on.

“We’re visiting him, ya doofus!” Uncle Terry scolded jokingly, slapping his brother playfully on the arm. I gave one last look to the basement door before awkwardly picking my way into the living room and lowering myself into the seat.

“Man, you’ve got everything here! How’d you get a place this nice?” Uncle Warren asked as his bulging eyes bore into me in a way I’m sure was friendly, though I didn’t feel its warmth. As he said this, Uncle Warren took a butter knife and cut into the meatloaf on the plate in front of him. The knife screeched against the plate below it as it cut.

“It’s not that much, it’s kinda small.” I replied, almost in a mutter.

“Bigger than my trailer!” Uncle James laughed, slamming his beer back down on the table, a clunking sound radiating from the bottom of the can.

“Hey, did you see the big game?” Uncle Terry asked.


“Are you gonna?”

“I’ll think about it.”

All my uncles laughed, and I realized at once that I’d said something strange. In the past my face would have flushed, but I didn’t allow it. I sat quietly as I waited for them to finish.

“Hey, your sister is upstairs, why don’t you go say hello?” Warren urged. I stole another glance towards the basement door, but it was blocked from my sight by the wall.

“Alright.” I said, my voice quiet but firm. The chair screeched underneath me as I stood up, and I felt their eyes upon me as I shuffled to the stairs.

Before I had even fully cleared the last step, I felt my sister crash into me, almost sending me back down the steps to my demise.

“Oh. I. Am. SO. SORRY!” She screeched, the sound piercing my brain like an adamantine spear. I looked up. My sister had long messy red hair, and was extremely pregnant. She pulled me roughly up to the landing by my arm, and looked me over.

“I haven’t seen you since, well, since I got here. How you BEEN?” I felt as though the sonic wave she sent at me would once again send me tumbling.

“Do you wanna feel the baby?”

“No, thanks.”

“Oh come on!”

“I’m good.”

“Oh, you’re no fun.” Below, I could hear my other guests chattering away. All the sounds of the evening rose in my ears, until I felt the cacophony enveloping my entire being.

“You don’t look so good.” My sister said.

“I’ll be back.” I said. In a flash, I bounded down the stairs two at a time. I hoped no one would pay me any mind as I flew towards the basement door. Moving the box blocking it aside, I pried open the door. Below, I saw the exact open maw I thought I’d see.

The concrete steps stretched down, seemingly into infinity, like a row of smooth teeth going all the way to the back of a throat. I quickly hopped to the first step and shut the door tight, locking it in the same motion. I could still hear the voices through the door. Though here it was muffled, as though I were hearing it from underwater. I stopped to catch my breath, only stopping for a moment to consider how melodramatic I had been. I shook off the thought and gazed into the darkness below me. I took a deep breath, and took another step down. Each step I took was like diving deeper into the waves, and each step creaked like the screaming of a whale. The basement was unfinished, the only remnant of the house this once was. The floor and walls were hard and cold, and the gaps in the walls were nests for spiders and other creatures, twisting their jagged limbs as they slowly pushed their way through the darkness.

In the far corner of the room, there were only shadows. As I stepped towards the center, I finally felt silence. But there was something wrong down here. I could feel, rather than hear, something living. My eyes adjusted ever so slightly to the gloom, and I saw the edge of a circle, drawn in chalk, by me.

“You so rarely come visit me anymore.” A voice, it was smooth yet rough. Slippery yet hard. It reverberated through every hair on my body until I could feel it in every bone and every tissue of flesh. My throat was dry, and I couldn’t find the words before the voice spoke again. “Oh my dear, poor master. You look so pale….Won’t you take a seat.”

Despite the cold, clammy walls surrounding me, there was an uncomfortable warmth in the voice. At the end of each utterance, I could hear a soft clicking sound as jagged teeth settled and grinded together. I still found myself unable to speak as I lowered myself to the cold basement floor. I heard the subtle sound of a smack as the unseen lips opened to speak once again.

“Rough night? I’m so glad you came to see me, you know. I’ve been a good and faithful servant, haven’t I?” The voice became even smoother, as if turning over liquid mercury in its tongue.

“Wouldn’t you consider…” The voice began again, but I cut it off.

“I want them to go away.” I said, firmly.

“What’s this?”

“I want silence, I want them all gone!” I insisted. There was silence for a moment, I expected to hear a low, rumbling laugh like an earthquake. But instead, the voice became calm, soothing.

“Oh, you poor thing. Is that what you really want? It’s only one night…”

I didn’t allow myself to think.

“I don’t want anyone to bother me again, that’s my wish.”

“For a wish like that, you’d need to set me free.”

“Then you’re free, get out.” I thrust my foot out, smearing the circle of chalk.

“As you wish.”

I expected something explosive, like the fires of hell billowing out all around to consume me. But instead, I knew only silence. I looked around me, peering cautiously into the dark corner of my basement. But I saw nothing. I walked with shaky legs up the stairs, and it seemed that even the ancient steps leading out of the cellar would scream.

I pried open the door, and it looked as if the gloom of the basement had spread into the upstairs.

I stepped out and looked to the couch in the living room.

My Aunt wasn’t there.

I looked behind me at the dining room table.

My Uncles weren’t there.

I slid to the base of the stairs leading further up.

My Sister wasn’t there.

I gazed about myself, disoriented. The only light remaining in the house was the dim glow of the Christmas tree, thrust into the corner. I shakily took the remote from the coffee table, and clicked the on button. The TV was silent.

I stood there in silence for a moment, not even allowing myself to breathe. I went to the front door and opened it. There was nothing outside. Not the blinding darkness of night, simply nothing. A void, with nowhere to leave. I said nothing, and lowered myself back onto the couch. My gaze once again comes to rest on the wall, with the lights of the Christmas tree reflecting onto it. I stare until the colors all blend together.


The cells was even gray stone, warmed and lit by spells that that neither fireplace nor window was needed. Except it was now lit by a blue light between the prisoner's hands.

One that, Karl noted, did not reek of necromancy.

The woman looked at him. Her cool smile did not quite smirk. "You do not seem impressed by my spellcraft. But I must do my humble best, even as a captive, to keep my hand in, and even hone my casting."

They had found no trace of her charming those who questioned her. He bowed courteously. "There are those who say your spellcraft is already supreme, and well-hidden."

"Perhaps in some matters, but no prudent wizard ceases to study -- other matters if she has exhausted what may be done with what she has studied before."

You are a poor interrogator, Karl told himself. You gave it over to the hands of others for good reason. He stood aside from the door, and she graciously took her skirts in hand and glided out onto the balcony.

Someone stood below.

Karl blinked. Marcus had no business being here, and no reason to dress like some day laborer. if not a beggar, and certainly none to be glaring at the prisoner.

"Why, you do let any amount of riffraff about the tower, do you not, good knight?'

Karl opened his mouth. Before he found words, Marcus tilted his head up.

"You are still an evil monster."

Her face worked. Her eyes narrowed. She leaned forward over the railing and spat, "What are you doing here? I told him to kill you!"

Karl shut his mouth.

"How hard is it to kill a defenseless boy of twelve?"

"Harder than it looks," said Marcus.

Blue light flared up in her hands, and Karl felt the death in it where he stood. Marcus moved more quickly than he did: his hands went up, and star-white radiance flew from them to burst hers.

For a minute, her face showed no reaction at all.

"I also am not quite the same as I was when we first met."

Color slowly drained from her face.

"Go back into your cell. Confess to everything. Then they will keep you prisoner, and safe."

She turned around and walked back. She did not look at Karl to ensure he closed the door.

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