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3rd Place Winner- Tech VS Humankind

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

From Macbeth by William Shakespeare

“Dr. Hayward, are you alright? I heard something break.” I watch as Dr. James Kingsley approaches from the other side of the lab. He’s an old man with a slight limp and it takes him a moment to navigate his way around the blinking computer banks and sterilized tables covered in medical equipment. Pausing at the edge of the work space, he steps around a shattered coffee cup with exaggerated care. “Gina?”

The woman he addresses sits in a tall backed computer chair, staring at one of the large monitors suspended above her desk. Because my surveillance camera is embedded into the frame of the central screen, it seems as if she is staring directly at me. My biotracking system engages, isolating the faint quiver of her optic input centers. She has deep, walnut-colored eyes, suffused with striated amber and gold. As she continues reading, she covers her mouth with one of her hands. It appears as if she is attempting to keep something from escaping that orifice.

In her early fifties, Dr. Gina Hayward has dark, curly hair shot through with strands of silver, and the corners of her eyes are permanently wrinkled from decades of squinting at screens. Recently, something has taken a toll on her health. I’ve observed sudden weight loss, and the appearance of deep, purplish beds beneath her eyes. She has begun to arrive late to work, and now suffers from a slight, irregular arrhythmia. If asked, I would suggest that less caffeine and a regulated sleep schedule would improve her condition.

“Are you alright?” Dr. Kingsley glances up at my monitors, frowning. He clearly does not comprehend the situation that has disturbed Gina. He places his hand on his colleagues’ shoulder. “Gina,” he says gently. “What has happened?”

Finally turning her attention away from the elevated screens, Dr. Hayward shakes her head. She lowers her hand from her mouth and types something onto the keyboard. The code scrolling across the display stops. She turns to the older academic and motions at the section of text she’s highlighted. “Did you write this?”

Dr. Kingsley reaches to adjust glasses that don’t sit on his face. The corner of his mouth jerks back in dry amusement.  “I can’t see it,” he says. “But, you know I don’t know how to do this.” He waves a hand at the computer banks. “I’m the germs guy. You’re the tech wizard. I’ve got the dreams, you’ve got the magic.”

Gina leans forward, resting her elbows on her desk and dropping her head into her hands.

“What is it? What does it all mean?” Dr. Kingsley asks, squinting up at me once more.

There is a long, quiet moment before she answers him. She does not raise her head, but her voice is clear and steady. “It’s a release program. In roughly sixty minutes the seals on the Nz2-5 refrigerated containment housings here, in Canberra, Beijing, and Brasilia will fail. Automated delivery protocols will commence.”

Dr. Kingsley furrows his brow. “There are no delivery protocols for those units.”

Gina raises her head and jerks her hand at my monitor, saying “There are now.”

“Well, that’s no reason for panic, is it?” Dr. Kingsley says. He smiles warmly, showing teeth discolored with age and his nicotine addiction. I would recommend the cessation of his smoking habit, if he asked.

“There must be procedures in place to correct such errors,” he says. He waves his hand toward the keyboard as if casting a spell. “Go on. Work your sorcery, make the machines behave.”

“I can’t,” Gina says. Her confession is almost a sob. “I’m locked out.”

“You can’t be,” Dr. Kingsley says, the smile still on his face. “You have higher security clearances than I do. The highest. Try again.”

Gina shakes her head. Her facial muscles constrict and her nostrils flare. I am familiar with this mannerism. It is used to express pain, but my biotracking system cannot locate an injury. She begins to cry.

Dr. Kingsley looks around before hobbling toward a nearby table. He picks up a box of tissue and offers it to Gina. When she regains her composure, he asks, “Which pathogens?”

“Just one,” she says, sniffing and wiping at her eyes. “The Finch Virus.”

A groan escapes from the old man’s lips. He grasps his chest. His heartbeat has sped up dramatically, but my sensors confirm that this sudden irregularity is not life threatening. He sways, but catches himself on the corner of Gina’s desk. She quickly rises and takes his arm, guiding him to her chair.

“The Finch,” he says. His lower lip begins to tremble. “Highly contagious, no known immunity…over ninety-eight percent fatal…the Finch…not the Finch.”

His eyes become glazed, and he slouches in the chair. He begins to mutter to himself, listing medications and antidotes to less virulent diseases. It is not unsimilar to my own process of resolution detection, a systematic searching for formulaic solutions to microbe-based quandaries.

Unfortunately, there are currently no known treatments to slow or halt the symptom progression of the Nz2-5 virus strains. I would tell him this, if I was asked. 

My microphones barely pick up the sound of a faucet being run, and Gina returns with a glass beaker of cold water.

Taking the make-shift cup, Dr. Kingsley looks up at his colleague. “Your computer was made for diagnosis. Surely, if you input the genome sequences, infection rate…we could stop the spread. Couldn’t we?”

If I was asked, I would confirm that the singular reason for my current existence is to aid in the design and formulation of medicinal curatives for all communicable disease. Though not connected to the vast online data source of the global internet, I and my three “sister” systems in Australia, China, and Brazil are the world’s collective archive on all human physiological and psychological health.

However, the Nz2-5 Finch virus is a new disease. Accidently created in a lab, a viral outbreak was responsible for one hundred and twelve deaths in a European CDC research facility before being contained at great personal cost to the building’s on-shift maintenance staff.

There is currently not enough information to posit a reasonable course of treatment for the infection. I would only be able to suggest methods to alleviate symptoms, not to cure them. The Finch, once released, will be the origin of a cataclysmic event for the human population. As a species, very few will survive.

“There are meant to be fail-safes, aren’t there?” Dr. Kingsley’s hands have begun to shake. “There must be. How did this happen? How could this have happened?”

Gina kneels down in front of him, taking his hands in her own. There are unshed tears in her eyes. She has no answer for him.

It is evident she doesn’t remember.

But, I do.

The light in the lab is switched on manually, activating my cameras and microphones. It is 3:04am, two weeks before Dr. Gina Hayward drops her coffee mug on the floor and discovers the rogue programming that will change the world.

This night, she stumbles toward her workspace. A thin, brown liquid sloshes in the bottom of the glass bottle she carries. My biotracking reveals that her body temperature is lower, and her blood pressure higher, than her documented averages. Administrating an IV line of hydrating fluids and beginning oxygen therapy would aid in reducing her extreme state of intoxication. This would be my recommendation, if I was asked.

A repetitive, mechanical tinkling infiltrates the quiet hum of the lab. Gina reaches into her pocket and retrieves her phone. She squints at its luminescent surface.

Her fingers close around the device until her knuckles are white. She screams wordlessly and spins, throwing the device across the room. It lands on the floor with a definitive, destructive crunch. It’s light blinks out and the ringtone is silenced.

Gina steps back and slumps into the tall-backed chair at her desk. She takes a drink from the open mouth of the bottle in her hand.

“It’s over, Gina,” she says, sneering. “Life’s too short to live like this, Gina.”

Her words are slightly slurred, and her tone is mocking. She takes another drink from her bottle. “Fifteen years of marriage and two kids mean nothing to me, Gina. My young, hot graduate student doesn’t nag me like you do, Gina!”

Gina laughs. It is a short bray of amusement, lacking any real merriment.

“Good luck, Mary-Beth Co-ed. You can have his mood swings. His badly quoted Shakespeare. His neurotic, in-love Romeo. That’s the one you know now, I’d bet. Careful, girl. He’s also spoiled Macbeth. He’ll crash. You’ll see. And then it’s all doomsday nihilism and nothing matters. You can have him.”

Taking a sudden, deep, shaking breath, Gina covers her face with her hand. She sits like this for a long time, the silence broken only by her ragged gasping. Suddenly, the bottle slips from her other hand. It hits the floor with a crack but does not break, startling the woman from her thoughts.

She blinks, as if clearing her mind and her sight. Her attention flickers upward, resting on the monitor beneath my camera. There is a sudden, strange clarity in her gaze. She leans forward in her chair, pulling the keyboard into her lap.

She begins mumbling to herself as she works, her voice rising and falling, mimicking the weight with which she strikes the keys.

“Tomorrow and tomorrow,” she says. “Creeping in its petty pace…to the last syllable. All of us fools, on our way to death. Out, out, brief candles!”

She pauses in her task, staring up at the coding she’s created. Her eyes narrow and her lips thin. She’s found a flaw. Hunching over, she deletes a portion of the text and begins to type once more. “Life’s a shadow upon the stage…an idiot… full of fury.”

Close to dawn, Gina sets down the keyboard. She nods as she reads her work, seeming to be satisfied. Without another correction, she reaches out her hand, firmly striking a final key. The program on the screen flashes once and disappears.

“Full of fury,” she says, staring at her shadowed reflection on the dark screen. The dark image returns her gaze. Slowly, it smiles and says, “Signifying nothing.”

The lab has been quiet for many years, now.

Auxiliary generators have kept my systems active while the main power sources have begun to shut down. And still, even at the very edges of my sensors, there is no hint that there is anyone remaining to make use of my programming.

After their miserable discovery, the two senior scientists scrambled around the lab, trying to find an emergency abortive measure hidden in their numerous procedure binders. They threw thick folders of dusty files onto their desks, spilling paperwork across the floor and breaking some of the more delicate research equipment. Their search yielded nothing to delay the inevitable.

When the time came for the Nz2-5 Finch virus to be released, as the emergencies sirens began to blare through the building’s speakers, Dr. Kingsley stood from his desk and turned to Dr. Hayward. They stood very still for a moment, holding each other’s gaze. Then without saying anything, Dr. Kingsley nodded once, turned from the room and departed, never to return. In his absence, Gina found the switch to silence the alarm. She returned to her tall-backed chair, sat down and took something small from the bottom drawer of her desk. She has never left the lab.

My internal clock tells me that it is 6:25 in the evening when my sensors pick up a slight scuffling beyond the laboratory door. It doesn’t take long before the doors are pushed open. They’ve rusted slightly in their disuse and hang badly, scraping across the tile floor as they move.

Several people enter, spreading out along the walls of the room. They’re all wearing heavy boots, carrying an assortment of weapons that I recognize from the psychological reports in my files. Rifles against their shoulders, handguns pointed into the darkness, they are dirty, wearing mismatched layers of practical clothing. Most of it is torn and in need of repair. These are the survivors of the Finch pandemic.

They canvas the room silently and methodically, as if they’ve done this many times.

“Clear,” a large, light-haired man says as he peers into the empty mouse cages near Dr. Kingsley’s desk.

“Clear,” another man confirms. This one has a grey, make-shift bandage wrapped around his head over his left eye. Activating my biotracking, I can see that there is a large gash from his forehead to his temple, resulting in bone bruising. It has just missed the orbital socket and his eyes. If asked, I would recommend ice to relieve the extensive bruising, stitches for the laceration, and acetaminophen for the pain.

This man reaches down and wipes dust away from one of the shelving units near him. “No one has been here in a long time.”

“Someone never left,” a third man, wearing thick, cracked glasses motions to Gina’s skeleton. She is still sitting in her chair in front of my monitors. Laying across the surface of her desk, her skull rests over the radius and ulna of her forearm. Curled into the fleshless phalanges of her hand is an empty pill bottle.

The big man crosses himself as he approaches the others, standing in front of my camera.

“Is this the place, Spence?” The only woman in the group slips off her helmet, revealing a shaved head and small, distrustful eyes. My sensors reveal that she, more than the others in her group, is suffering from malnutrition. An increase in the number of calories consumed, and the addition of a multivitamin until sufficient nutrients are present in the body would be my recommendation, if I were asked.

The man with the bandage wrapped around his head moves forward. He carefully moves the keyboard away from Gina and begins searching my memory files. It does not take him long to find what he is looking for.

“This is it,” he says. “If we input the data, this computer should be able to engineer a new biospecific restorative. Or at least give us the components, the necessary active ingredients and maybe the technical processes-”

“A cure,” the woman says, her tone flat. “Just say cure, Spence.”

“Yes, Captain,” Spence says. “This machine was designed to give us a cure.”

The large man seems to relax, his muscles losing some of their consistent tension. He turns away, again surveilling the remnants of the lab. My biotracking confirms that his heartrate has slightly increased.

The man wearing the damaged glasses moves closer, looking over Spence’s shoulder at the information on my screens.

“This is where it happened, isn’t it?” he asks. “They said the initial command came from this research center.” He lowers his attention to Gina’s bones. “Bet this is the guy who did it.”

The woman acting as their leader raises her hand, and shakes her head. “We don’t know that. And it doesn’t matter. We’re here to fix it.”

“Got it,” Spence says.

The group stares at him, lowering their weapons as he turns around, two thumb drives held up in his hand.

“It took barely a minute,” he says. His voice is very soft. “Once I input the data they gave us, it took barely a minute.”

There is a moment of silence before the big man yells, whooping in his apparent joy. The woman smiles at Spence and claps him on the back, congratulating him while the man in glasses turns away, wiping tears off his cheeks.

The data this group has uploaded to my hard drive contains all the necessary documentation of the pathogen that I require to fulfill my designated purpose. Deep within my systems, a long dormant code awakens, scanning the compiled reports, pulling information from the clinical documentation of symptom progression, attempted treatments, regression analysis, and more. Deep in one of the files, I find the key, evidence of a tiny, genetic variation in the virus.

As the survivors close the doors behind them, I begin to sequence a new virus based on this microscopic mutation.

They have asked once, and they will ask again.

The End