Thanks to guest contributor Jen Phillips for this year’s Halloween day story, Welcome to Neuenet, a chilling story made all the more creepy by its plausibility. Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!
She checked herself in the mirror, straightened her jacket and tried to look confident. The knowledge that anxiety made her epilepsy worse did nothing to ease her mind, as she imagined having a seizure in front of the people she was supposed to be impressing. She frowned at herself briefly, then took a deep breath and stepped out of the ladies’ and back onto the foyer of Neunet Plc, the self-styled “supercomputer supercompany.”
Welcome to Neunet. What would you like to know?
The question above the reception desk was the same one that appeared on screens the world over. Neunet had only been running a couple of years but was already out-competing Google and Wikipedia in the online information market. Trying not to stumble in her new shoes, she strode over and followed the directions down to the conference hall. She’d only been working for Justec for a few weeks. Her predecessor had gone to a conference, been recruited by a competitor and had never been seen since. So here she was representing her employers at Neunet’s quarterly conference. She felt very out of her depth.
She wandered past the trade stands, trying to look interested in displays with far too many buzz words and people with smiles as false as her own. When she spotted the coffee, she headed straight over. Coffee was one area she felt confident she knew what she was doing. As she helped herself to her third biscuit, trying to look nonchalant, a man who apparently used the same tailor as half the room came over to her.
“Hi.” He dropped his gaze to read her badge. “Carrie Albright, Technical Writer from Justec. I’m Pete.”
“Hi.” She shook his outstretched hand but had no clue what to do or say next.
“So… your first Neunet conference?”
They chatted for a few moments. Pete was a researcher for Neunet, specialising in natural search. He was working on their latest server farm, filling it with information and organising it in ways that made sense to people instead of machines. It was a fascinating project, and the focus of the conference keynote presentation. Neunet was harnessing the power of supercomputers and making them think like people.
After the keynote, Carrie bumped into Pete again. Keen to network, she said she’d been impressed with the presentation. It wasn’t her field of expertise, but was something that fascinated her.
“I tell you what,” said Pete, leaning in conspiratorially. “Would you like to see it?”
“The server farm. The hardware is as impressive as the software.”
“Well, I…” she started.
“Well nothing! Come on.”
He swept her out of the conference hall and into a quiet corridor. She had been unsure how to act before, but was totally lost now. Should she be going with him? Could she refuse such an important opportunity? What if he had ulterior motives for getting her alone?
“Come on, Carrie. You’ll love it. There’s a short film set up in one of the side rooms about how we’ve built it, then I can show you the real thing.”
She was relieved to see around a dozen other people mingling and waiting for the film. It was just another part of the conference after all, though there was still a nagging doubt somewhere in the back of her mind.
As the film started everyone settled down to watch. It started with the usual Neunet marketing spiel, with customer quotes that made them sound like they’d cured cancer rather than just built a search engine. Then the virtual tour of the facility started and things got strange. Rooms filled with desks and too-happy employees gave way to flickering swirls and low, hypnotic music. Carrie was about to get up and leave, fearing the film might trigger a seizure, when she noticed what was going on in the room. The doors had been locked and guards with guns were standing by every one. Pete was standing to one side, wearing what looked like 3D glasses. He grinned at the audience, who were transfixed and silent.
Carrie nudged the woman sitting next to her, but got no response. She tried tapping the man on the other side on the shoulder, but he didn’t take his eyes off the screen, or even blink. She watched him for a long moment and he did nothing but stare. Carrie’s heart beat in her throat as she glanced again at the armed guards. Pete looked around the room. She froze, trying to look like the psychedelic show was hypnotising her just like everyone else and hoping desperately that Pete wouldn’t notice.
As the film on the screen finished, Pete stepped out to the front of the room and took off his glasses. He directed one side door to be unlocked and invited everyone to follow him to the server farm. The audience stood as one and walked silently as he led them down deserted corridors. Carrie was desperate to run or hide but the thought of the armed guards convinced her that for now the only option was to play along.
They came into a hall filled with rows of people staring at nothing. Down one side there were several desks, each with an array of medical devices. As Carrie watched, hypnotised people were led one by one over to the desks, where nurses completed a set of basic medical checks. From there they were taken through one of two doors. The first was marked server farm and the second reformatting. Carrie shuddered to think what either might mean.
She looked around, trying to spot a way out that didn’t involve taking her chances against a gun. There wasn’t one. She was beginning to panic. All she could do was try to conform and keep watching for an opportunity. She held her breath as an armed guard took the man next to her over to the nearest desk. The man was middle aged, greying at the temples and a little rounder at the waist than was healthy. The nurse measured his height and weight, took his blood pressure and made a few notes. She frowned slightly, then looked at the guard and shook her head. The guard nodded and led the man down to the “Reformatting” door. Carrie tried to get a glance through the door as it opened, but she couldn’t as another guard stepped in front of her.
He put one hand on her elbow and guided her towards the desk. She could feel her heart beating faster and glanced about with growing desperation. The guard stood her on the scales by the desk and stepped back. The nurse barely glanced at her as she fiddled with equipment and made notes. She slipped the blood pressure cuff around Carrie’s arm and adjusted her stethoscope. The nurse jumped as though she’d had an electric shock and suddenly she and Carrie were staring into each other’s eyes. Carrie’s racing pulse had betrayed her and the nurse knew that she was not under Neunet’s control.
A split second later, the nurse sounded an alarm and Carrie was running for the nearest door, where a guard stood waiting. He raised his gun and shot her, but the expected blinding pain and bleeding didn’t happen. Instead there was just a sharp sting. As Carrie’s head started to swim she realised that it was a tranquilliser dart. She crumpled slowly to the floor and was dimly aware of being carried towards the reformatting door before everything went black.
Darkness. Muted, distant sounds. An odd aching, as though her body were not her own. Carrie tried to open her eyes, but her eyelids did not respond. The sounds seemed less distant now, more distinct. Voices. She strained to listen.
“I know, Pete, but it didn’t work.”
“Why the hell not? I don’t want to reformat her only to find that doesn’t work either. The last thing we need is her blabbing about what she’s seen!”
“Her medical records say she’s epileptic.”
“That’s never been an issue before, so…”
“She’s also on retigabine. We’ve never tested it on anyone using that before. That’s why she wasn’t on the list I gave you!”
“To hell with the list, she’s perfect! You’ve seen her CV! Maybe we should just hook her up anyway.”
Carrie tried to shout out, to beg them to let her go, but could only manage a low murmur.
“Pete, she’s waking up. Are you serious about hooking her up?”
“Yes, I am. If it’s the drug that’s the problem, then it’ll go away when she stops taking it.”
“Right. But on your head be it if the epilepsy causes a system crash. Let’s get it done before she comes round properly.”
Carrie felt surprisingly gentle hands touch her arm. She tried to move but the tranquilliser was still making her muscles feel like lead. She managed to open her eyes a crack and saw a man in a white coat standing over her. He was working on something just outside her field of vision, but the sharp scratch and the stand beside her told her he’d set up an IV. He stood behind her and pushed a thin tube down her throat into her stomach. She gagged, but didn’t have the strength to stop him. The only outward sign of her inner fight was a tear that dropped from the corner of her eye. The doctor continued to work, this time on her head. He shaved her hair off and laid out a collection of fine wires. As he picked up a tiny bone drill, Carrie let the blackness swallow her again.
When she came round she was lying in a hospital bed. She tried to sit up but discovered she had been strapped into place. She turned her head to one side and saw hundreds of other people, all on beds, all with multiple wires leading from their brains to network ports. She screamed. She turned her head to the other side and there was Pete.
“Welcome to Neunet,” he said, smiling almost kindly. “You are now part of the world’s biggest neural network, where we make computers think like people, by building them out of human brains. Isn’t that exciting?”
He reached out and flicked a switch. Carrie was suddenly aware of information rushing through her mind. It was vast, making her head swim with vertigo. She tried to fight it, to block it out, but to no avail. Then she became aware of something else, a presence, as though her head was being shared with a visitor. Involuntarily, she welcomed it with a chillingly familiar phrase:
Welcome to Neunet. What would you like to know?