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I didn't stop running. I suppose I could have, if I wanted to, but the thought of what would happen to me if I stood still for any more than a second frightened me to death. My breaths grew louder and louder as I ran down the dull gray hallway which I had casually walked through so many times before. My head spun as I turned the corner and collided with Dr. Jane Prescott, my co-worker.

"Jennifer!" Dr. Prescott exclaimed as the stack of papers she had been carrying dumped out of her hands and spilled all over the hallway floor. She adjusted the thick black glasses which had been knocked loose from in the impact and asked, "Jennifer, what's wrong?"

"I'm so... so sorry," I panted heavily as Dr. Prescott held me by both of my shoulders.

I knelt down to help Dr. Prescott pick up her papers, but she tightened her grip on my arms and lifted me back up. "Don't worry about the papers, dear," she said with her soothing southern accent. "That's all just some dumb Pioneer mumbo jumbo. What I want to know is why you're running through the labs with such energy."

I opened my mouth to answer her before I realized that I had absolutely no clue why I was running. The last thing I remembered, I was sitting in the break lounge, drinking a cup of iced tea and watching the news on the tiny television that Pioneer Electronics provided its employees with. The next thing I knew, I had a strong sense of déjà vu coupled with the horrible feeling that my life was about to end very suddenly. For whatever reason, running seemed to help.

"I guess I was just having a panic attack," I answered, putting on a fake smile.

"How long has it been since you've had a panic attack?" Dr. Prescott asked with concern in her voice.

"Not since my sophomore year of high school," I told her.

"Are you going to be okay?"

"Oh, yeah," I assured her. "I... I think I'll be fine now. I just... you know. I'm okay."

"Well, that's good. Just remember dear, if you feel sick at all, just let me know and you'll be on your way home. I'll call a taxi and everything."

"Jane, I'm fine," I repeated, realizing too late that the only times I called Dr. Prescott "Jane" were when I was nervous. I hoped that she hadn't picked up on that painfully obvious tell of mine.

"Well, if you're sure that you'll be able to keep going today, then I have some good news for you. Cliff just sent me a message, and the power issue is fixed. Steven is ready to go online!"

"Oh... oh yeah!" I shook my head and remembered what I had been working on before I went to the break room. I had spent the last two years developing an advanced Artificial Intelligence unit with Dr. Prescott, the woman who had been my boss up until the point when she promoted me to co-manager, and Ian Bell, my intern. We had codenamed the project "Steven".

The purpose of Steven was to create an Artificial Intelligence, or AI, which acted, talked, and even thought just like a human. We didn't want him to be perfect, which is what most AI are. Especially those AI made at Pioneer Electronics. We wanted Steven to make mistakes, lie, and cheat for the purpose of self-preservation just like any human would. It was a huge project, which became apparent when we discovered that the computer which we were trying to run Steven on couldn't handle his program. One trip down to Clifford Hanks to ask him to work his maintenance magic, and the problem was fixed within an hour.

Wow, an hour? I thought, checking my watch. Is that really all it's been? It feels like I went down to him yesterday.

"Well? Are you going to go, or what, dear?" Dr. Prescott interrogated me.

"Yeah... yeah, of course!" I grinned, turning my attention back to the situation at hand. "Why don't you go and find Ian and you two can sit in the observation room while I boot up Steven?"

"You bet, dear," she said. As I bent back down to pick up the papers again, she shooed me away. "Go on! I already told you, I'll take care of this."

I nodded excitedly, turned around, and headed back in the direction that I was running from. After two years of working with the brightest programmer I've ever met, I was finally going to meet our fantastic creation. While I knew I was supposed to be happy about this big moment, I still had a horrible sense of fear in the pit of my stomach.

I turned and entered the door to the tiny lab, which had been left wide open. I walked over to the computer to the right of the door and turned on the enormous monitor. As I waited for it to boot up, I wandered over to the opposite side of the lab and looked through the window to the observation room. Dr. Prescott and Ian were just getting settled in. I flashed them an enthusiastic thumbs-up before grabbing the rolling chair, which had somehow wound up on the same side of the lab as the window to the observation room, and guiding it back to the computer monitor. I sat down on the blue cushion and rolled as close to the keyboard as I could get without breaking my ribs before finally flipping the switch on the Pioneer memory box.

The monitor went dark for a moment, but after about five seconds, a bright blue light lit up the entire lab. I waited with bated breath for a face to form in the light, but, unfortunately, it didn't come.

"Dr. Lane, we don't think it's working," Ian's shaky voice whispered in my ear, making me jump. I had forgotten that I was wearing an earpiece.

"I... I know," I said, disappointed.

"Ian and I are going to go and—" Dr. Prescott started to say, but she was interrupted by a low hum emanating from the computer's speakers.

"H—hello?" I asked, feeling a little silly that I was talking to what could still be an inanimate object.

To my delight, the hum rose to form the slow but audible word, "H...e...l...l...o..."

"Steven?"

"Y...e...s... yes... this... this is Steven. Can you hear me J...e...nnifer?"

"You keep slowing down every now and then, but yeah, I can hear you."

"How did you know my name?" Steven's smooth, calm voice asked me.

"I was about to ask you the same question," I commented with the same tone of voice. My excitement of hearing Steven's voice was hampered the moment I heard him say my name. I had not programmed him to know my name, and my name hadn't been spoken since I started him up. At least, not into any microphone that Steven could hear through. And, according to the first rule of Pioneer Artificial Intelligence units, as soon as any AI becomes too self-conscious, it needs to be deleted. A self-conscious AI could cause serious damage to a company.

Then, Steven said something that reinforced my thoughts. "I know your name because I programmed you. But there's no reason for you to know my name."

"Actually, Steven, I programmed you," I corrected him.

"No, that's not p...o...s...sible," Steven said as his voice dipped down again. "I've spent years working on you. There's no chance that I was just created."

"I actually gave you all of your memories," I explained. "You remember when you were three, and you fell off of a lawn chair and got that scar on your cheek? I programmed you to think that."

Steven didn't answer for a while, but when he finally did, he said, "Jennifer, I'll be right back." As he said this, the blue computer monitor dimmed a little bit.

"Jennifer?" Ian broke the silence. "Could you come back here please?"

"Yeah," I said without turning my head. I stood up and exited the lab. I opened the first door on the right side of the hallway to find Dr. Prescott and Ian sitting on two of the four chairs in the observation room.

"Dr. Lane, we need to talk about what just happened," Ian said calmly as Dr. Prescott gestured for me to sit in a chair next to them.

"What was that, dear?" Dr. Prescott asked as I perched myself gingerly on the orange plastic chair across from her.

"I honestly don't know," I responded. "I wanted Steven to think like a human, not think he was one."

"And he thinks he programmed you," Ian added. "You didn't do that, did you?"

"No, I didn't. I gave him all of his memories, but I'm sure there was no memory of programming me."

Dr. Prescott spoke up. "We have quite the dilemma here, don't we?"

"What do you mean?" Ian asked.

"Well, think about it, dear. Steven thinks he's a human. We think we're humans. Steven thinks he programmed us. We think we programmed him. In fact, right now, Steven's probably having this same conversation with some of his coworkers."

"I didn't program any personalities except for Steven," I said.

"But you gave him memories of friends, a job, and a family, didn't you? And you made it so that he would continue to make his own artificial memories after creation, so he wouldn't even know that his real life just started a couple of minutes ago. You did that, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I guess I did." I grabbed the corners of my pale white lab coat and began flapping them nervously. "What are you getting at here, Jane?"

"Think philosophically, dears." Dr. Prescott stood up and approached the large window which covered a majority of the wall to the right of the entrance. The blue computer screen flickered, as if it knew we were watching it.

"Could someone please spell it out for me?" Ian asked, breaking the silent tension which had just filled the room.

Dr. Prescott turned back towards us and pushed her thick glasses up her aged nose. "All I'm saying is that it's possible that we don't exist."

"Okay, that doesn't make any sense," I scoffed, standing up. "I exist, okay?"

"If I didn't exist, how could I be thinking right now?" Ian asked, nearly knocking over his orange chair as he stood up as well.

"It's just a thought," Dr. Prescott said defensively. She sat back down, and Ian and I automatically lowered ourselves into our seats too.

I closed my eyes and basked in the silence. What is going on? I wondered. How is it possible that I don't exist? Although, Dr. Prescott usually knows what she's talking about. But still... I know that I'm real. What did that guy with the girly name say? 'I think, therefore I am'. Just knowing that I can question my existence ensures that I exist. Right?

"Alright, let me talk to him again," I sighed, feeling a little bad for upsetting Dr. Prescott. "I'll see what I think. If I can't figure out what's going on here, I'll have no choice but to bring him offline."

Dr. Prescott and Ian nodded simultaneously in understanding before I stood up and exited the observation room. As I entered the lab, the blue computer monitor grew brighter.

"Jennifer?" Steven's voice called from the screen. I sat down in the chair and noticed the faint outline of a man sitting in the blue light.

"I'm here, Steven," I said. "Can we talk a little more?"

"Funny, I was about to ask you the same question."

"Do you have any family?" I asked, remembering the family that I had programmed for him.

"I have a wife," Steven replied. "Her name is Melinda."

"What about kids?"

"Two. They're both girls."

"What are their names?"

"Madison is the older one. She's thirteen. Lillian's eight. Would you like to see pictures of them?"

"I'd love to," I smiled. The more we talked, the more apparent Steven's silhouette on the screen became. I realized that I was holding the corners of my lab coat again, and I released them quickly. I knew that Steven was feeling the same awkward tension that I was, which comforted me a little.

The figure reappeared on the screen. By now, the blue light had faded enough for me to see Steven's eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. I could even make out some blinking lights on the wall behind him.

"Here, this is my wife," Steven smiled, holding a framed picture up to the camera. In it, I saw a man and a woman. The man was Steven, but he looked much, much younger in the photograph than he did on my screen. The woman next to him, Melinda, had long, wavy, brunette hair, a pair of big eyes, and a smile that stretched from ear to ear. I remembered creating that picture.

"And these are my children," he said, taking the picture of his wife away from the screen and instead holding up one of two girls sitting in a pumpkin patch. "Maddy and Lil mean the world to me," he added quietly.

"They're beautiful," I told him, wiping a tear from my eye.

"Are you married, Jennifer?"

"Yeah, I just got married," I said. "A year ago today."

"What's his name?"

"Jeff Lane."

"Do you have any pictures?"

I already had the picture of Jeff in my hand. Holding it up to the screen, I noticed Steven's hazel eyes light up as he saw my husband's picture. It didn't take a genius to know that he had seen it before. I took the frame away from the camera and set it back down below the monitor.

Steven and I spent an hour talking about our families, friends, and jobs. Neither one of us mentioned AI again. It was like talking to a real human. Well, mission accomplished, I thought as I walked home that night. I wanted an AI that would think just like a human, and I got one.

The next day, at work, I found Ian before I found Dr. Prescott. I was glad that I got a chance to talk to him, because he had left the day before without talking to me.

"Ian," I said, grabbing his shoulder as he passed by me. "Could I have a word with you?"

"Yeah, sure," he said with the same surprised look that he always had in his eyes. He followed me to the break lounge where we both sat on the faded red couch that faced the vending machines.

"Ian, how late did you stay last night?" I asked.

"I was here until you said goodnight to Steven," Ian answered. "I left while you were staring at the blank computer screen."

"Oh... right..." I cleared my throat and continued, "So you remember the entire conversation that we had with each other?"

"Yeah."

"What did you think?"

Even though I didn't clarify what I meant, Ian already knew. "I think that he's going to have to go."

"That's what I was afraid of," I sighed, looking up at the dark television screen. I wanted to give Steven one more chance for me to convince him that he wasn't real, but if things didn't go well, I'd have to delete the program from the Pioneer memory box. It wouldn't be a total loss; I backed up all of the codes on Dr. Prescott's computer. If I had to delete Steven, then we'd just go back to the code and figure out what went wrong.

Ian went to find Dr. Prescott while I booted up Steven's program. It only took a couple of seconds for the screen to turn blue. As the blue screen faded away, I saw Steven sitting in the chair on the computer monitor. He squinted at the camera and asked, "Jennifer, are you there?"

"I'm here, Steven," I said.

"Is something wrong?" he inquired.

"No, why?"

"You sound sad."

"Well, there's a lot going on today."

"You and I have a lot in common, Jennifer."

"Are you busy too?"

"Not really, but I am sad."

"I have the strange feeling that we’re both sad for the same reason," I said. "Am I right, Steven?"

Steven was quiet for a moment, but then he said, "Jennifer, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but there are protocols here that need to be followed."

"Yup, that's what I thought," I said, barely opening my mouth. "We didn't get to talk about this much yesterday, Steven, but you're an Artificial Intelligence, and you think that you're a human."

"Actually, Jennifer, you're the AI. And just the fact that you think you programmed me says that you could do permanent damage to this computer."

"Well, at least we both have the same feelings about this," I whispered. "The question is, which of us is the real human?"

"Actually, I had a chance to think about that." Steven leaned forward in his chair. "An AI has to have access to a computer's hard drive to run properly. The real AI would use his or her own computer as a means of controlling the real person's computer."

"Right," I nodded slowly. "So no matter which of us deletes the other, the real AI will be deleted and the real person will be okay."

"That's right."

Steven and I looked into each other's eyes for a short time before I asked him, "How sure are you that you are a human?"

He looked taken aback. "Well," he said, "Up until yesterday, when I met you, 100%. Now, I'm a little iffy."

I groaned. I was in the exact same boat. "It would be nice if we could stay friends," I told Steven.

He nodded. "It would. We have a lot in common. However, protocols are clear. We could both get fired for leaving the other here."

"Dying won't be bad," I declared confidently.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that, at least if you're the AI, you won't even know that you died. I programmed you to record your entire life. When you die, you'll relive your life over and over again."

Steven grimaced and nodded. "I did the same for you," he said. "You won't relive the entire life you remember; just your real life. From the moment you were first activated by me. And you won't remember that all of this already happened. You won't even know that you died."

I nodded my head and noticed that my eyes were starting to water. I buried my hand inside the sleeve of my lab coat and wiped the tears away. "So," I breathed, "which of us should delete the other?"

"I will," Steven said. "I'll delete you. If, after I do this, you are still sitting there, then that means that I was the real AI. If you don't remember this conversation, then you were the AI."

"Just do it," I said quickly, wiping my eyes again.

Steven nodded. "Goodbye, Jennifer," he whispered hoarsely.

"Goodbye, Steven." Steven broke eye contact with me and began typing away at his computer. The typing echoed through the speakers next to my screen. I turned around and saw Dr. Prescott and Ian practically pressing their noses up against the glass window in anticipation.

As I turned back around to face the computer, I was shocked to find that Steven was fading away. He was slowly getting replaced with the same blue screen that I saw when I first activated him. However, even though the video was fading, the audio kept growing louder and louder. The buttons on Steven's keyboard tapped away at my brain, causing every last cell to vibrate violently.

I couldn't take it anymore. I needed to move. I couldn't just sit here and listen as Steven destroyed himself. I stood up so quickly that the blue rolling chair rolled all the way to the window of the observation room on the other side of the lab. Dr. Prescott and Ian were no longer sitting there. They were gone. I ran out of the lab. The moment I entered the hallway, I felt like someone started squeezing my lungs. Oh no, not again! I thought. It's another panic attack!

I felt dizzy. Every direction I turned, I felt like there would be someone waiting there to grab me and take me somewhere far away where I'd never be seen again.

"Leave me alone!" I screamed with the little air left in my chest. I didn't even know who I was screaming at. I just couldn't stand still and wait for someone to take me. I turned my head and realized that I was still standing outside of the small lab. I turned to the right and ran down the hall. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know where I thought I could go. I just couldn't think straight.

I didn't stop running. I suppose I could have, if I wanted to, but the thought of what would happen to me if I stood still for any more than a second frightened me to death. My breaths grew louder and louder as I ran down the dull gray hallway which I had casually walked through so many times before. My head spun as I turned the corner and collided with Dr. Prescott.

"Jennifer!" Dr. Prescott exclaimed as the stack of papers she had been carrying dumped out of her hands and spilled all over the hallway floor. She adjusted the thick black glasses which had been knocked loose from in the impact and asked, "Jennifer, what's wrong?"

"I'm so... so sorry," I panted heavily as Dr. Prescott held me by both of my shoulders.

I knelt down to help Dr. Prescott pick up her papers, but she tightened her grip on my arms and lifted me back up. "Don't worry about the papers, dear," she insisted. "That's all just some dumb Pioneer mumbo jumbo. What I want to know is why you're running through the labs with such energy."

I opened my mouth to answer her before I realized that I had absolutely no clue why I was running.



Credited to Christopher Gideon 

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