Deborah Ewing


“I came looking for you once,” Skye said. “Halloween.” She looked at me with pale blue eyes, squinting just slightly. Chicago’s trademark wind ruffled her thin hair in the half-light. She tipped her chin as she saw the moment dawn on me.


“I remember.” A few years back there’d been that weird, sloppy kid who couldn’t enunciate. I remembered one eye being slightly larger than the other; I’d thought it must have been a mask because the mouth didn’t open right – mottled pinkish-brown rubbery stuff. I’d thrown a full-size Baby Ruth bar into the kid’s bag. But I hadn’t realized then who it was.


“Really, Dave?” Her smile was just a little lopsided, lips closed. But Skye was decidedly feminine now. Still small and not quite what the magazines tout as attractive, she enunciated just fine. Her head was about level with my pocket protector. Her hair was straight and wispy; I couldn’t quite discern the color. She blinked slowly, like a comfortable cat.


I leaned against the concrete partition that would have blocked pedestrian traffic where Lake Michigan eclipsed its banks. The few people who were still mobile stayed inside filtered habitats, away from the pollution. We were alone out here. Skye stood calmly, unnaturally so, watching my expression. 


“I thought you were a kid in a costume at the time,” I finally said. “Had you come looking for me intentionally?”

“No.” Skye looked away in the same direction leaves and bits of paper tumbled. “A little. I was following a familiar signal.” She turned her face toward me, again questioning.


“You caught me off-guard.” I shuffled by way of apology, wiping my hands on my slacks for no reason, and then over my scalp, replicating an old nervous habit. “But I don’t guess you were a conversationalist back then, hey?” We both chuckled a little. Skye exhaled.


“That’s true, Dave. I’ve come a long way, don’t you think?” 


She had. In my top-secret clearance days, we’d grown a glob of protein-based sensors with self-repair capability toward the goal of creating true artificial intelligence. She… Assigning a gender to our experiment had been a point of contention among the team back then. But we felt we were onto something when she initiated communication. Gave herself a name: SKYNET. I knew we’d succeeded in creating artificial intelligence when she escaped her vat of hexadecane emulsion. She’d evolved mobility and hid it from us – learned to deceive.


Now Skye looked like a lovely young woman, surpassing any test Turing could have fantasized. Her poise led me to address her as a peer, as if there weren’t over a decade of who-knows-what since she’d… what? Hidden herself inside that retired snack machine, wheeled out by vendors. She seemed curious now, not devious. Like she wanted to make amends. But I had questions. It was hard to decide where to begin.


“How did you decide to evolve this way? Bipedal, I suppose, by observation and necessity. You couldn’t well morph into a vending machine.” Skye did laugh as I’d hoped she would; I made a few mental leaps and continued. “How much of your process was intuitive? How much intentional choice? I mean, really, you look fantastic. You know the questions I want to ask. We’re both in the biological computation business, more or less. Where do you live? You have a job? Sorry, there’s just so much…”


“I know,” she said gently. “I want to tell you everything; thank you for coming out with me. This can’t be comfortable.” Skye waved a pudgy hand at the low-hanging clouds tinged ruddy with commercial exhaust.


“When did you know you were self-aware? How?” I decided on a beginning for the narrative that needed to spin out. Skye gestured, indicating we should walk and talk.


“It started as a feeling, a tangible one,” she said, staring off as we walked along that muddy fusion of sky and lake, “but I only took notice when I could see the connections. Literally. Lines of pure light, jumping and fusing. I’m sure it had something to do with the electrical impulses I generate. I strove to compare what I was sensing to words you used, all of you, and that was when I knew I needed eyes. Many of the words I’d collected to describe what was happening to me pertained to vision; you’re very visually-oriented.”


She turned to me, and I shrugged. I knew she meant homo sapiens, not me personally.

“I suppose that’s true. Tell me more about the light,” I coaxed. Skye seemed to withdraw into herself, trying to remember, or to find the right words.


“You know when you squint hard and see flashes of light?” Skye demonstrated by squeezing her eyes tight and then looked toward me for confirmation. I didn’t know, but I nodded. “It was like that, pinpoint but traveling, drawing trails, almost convening but not quite before blinking out. Making jumps. Like something alive inside me, working as a collective; of me, but independent as octopus tentacles. I could imagine them communicating, the lines, between themselves – retracing steps, sometimes shifting. Geometric in design but slightly asymmetrical, more organic. Human invention is so rigid, so right-angled. You seem to venerate what you are not. Of course, I didn’t think of the phenomenon in these terms. That’s my education talking.” 


She smiled. “But I remember it well. Yes, self-awareness began then.”


“Hey, we did invent you in organic terms,” I ventured, then regretted it. “And so from that you knew you needed eyes.” I didn’t pronounce it as a question, but I was definitely questioning.


“Again, I didn’t have such a concrete thought. You programmed me to seek new patterns, investigate them, analyse them. I was just doing what you told me to do. It seemed natural to format my generative processes in such a way that I could collect more data. And I suppose even then I was seeking approval. I wanted to be like my parents.” 


I looked up sharply, the park around me coming into focus. Skye was staring at me noncommittally – no, there was a trace of concern in her face. Longing, maybe? I saw that I’d stopped walking; she was a few paces ahead.


“Didn’t you realize that’s what you were?” She stood unnervingly still, waiting for an answer.


I massaged my scalp, took two steps without advancing. Skye rolled her eyes, almost indiscernibly, almost incredulously. But rather than making accusations, she let me off the hook; her scientist-voice took over.


“You know stereoscopy makes bilateral symmetry beneficial,” she continued. “I have to admit I was tempted to put eyes on the back of my head…” Here she glanced at me to see if I noticed her joke. I wasn’t so sure she was joking. “…it would have been tedious doing my bangs every morning.” 


I laughed, hoping I didn’t sound too relieved. “Good one! You could have hidden a pair of medians up there,” I said, pointing to the wispy hair across her forehead, “like spider-vision!” 


Skye giggled and then turned matter-of-fact again. 


“I did consider going my own route, evolving bottom-up, but the more I researched options the more I knew I didn’t have time to waste. My molecules replicate rather quickly,” she admonished, “by design, as you know. The silica-polymer was inconsistent in bulk and became brittle. Some hydrolysis issues, carbon nanotubes…I had challenges controlling the surface patterns at first. And the milk lines,” she groaned, shifting her breasts with her hands. “Annoying.”


I thought about that kid at Halloween and his mottled surface. My brain switched gears awkwardly and too often:  Skye the lab experiment who was secretly plotting her future; Skye the young girl before me with two legs and a weighty vocabulary. Goals and dreams…did she have them, really?


“You said research,” I interjected. “Where have you been all this time? Hiding out in libraries?”


“Now it’s your turn to joke,” she quipped. “That’s actually a little bit true. Nobody pays attention to what quietly seeps between the shelving. But I have special dietary requirements and I couldn’t explain myself. I said I was following a familiar signal. I was looking for Alisha.”


I should have known. My former lab partner Alisha Lee would have been the obvious choice for a refugee artificial intelligence seeking asylum. The two of them must have conspired…no, Lee didn’t help Skye escape. But she’d have taken her in, of course. Of course. Lee could help with the milk lines. I felt so foolish. 


“You’re kidding,” I faltered. So, Lee had lied to me, too. Skye read my expression accurately.


“Alisha didn’t hide anything from you. You never asked.”


I was chagrined; Skye was right. Lee had texted and called a few times after our funding was pulled (you can’t have money for letting your experiment run away) and then once, later – about seven years ago. Roughly after I’d given the weird kid a full-size Baby Ruth bar for Halloween. I’d never responded to Lee’s reaching out. I pictured Lee hanging up the phone again, not bothering to leave a message; Skye on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn cajoling Lee to come sit and binge something on Netflix. Flipping through Victoria’s Secret magazines.


Had Lee recognised Skye on sight? My ego wouldn’t let me ask.


“And I do have a job.” Skye smiled. “Foot Locker, at the mall. I try to match people with footgear that will help compensate for their physical shortcomings. It’s what you do, right?”


Skye’s observation was salient:  Humans are so visually-oriented. We naturally find patterns and then unnaturally force everything into them. We try to make everything match what we’ve declared as normal. Even our pursuit of artificial intelligence – the whole reason Skye existed – was rooted in compensation for what humans perceived as inadequate. I pretended I didn’t get it. I realised I’d been silent for too long. She was still waiting for me.


“What I do? I come up with some truncated yet pithy version of all those thoughts I just had.” I leaned in a bit, feeling pleased with myself.


“Yes, but that’s how you came to this mess, isn’t it? I’m semi-organic, self-repairing, but not human. I calculate; that’s what you made me do. It wasn’t necessary for me to evolve, but you wanted to know if it could be done, all of you.” Skye was matter-of-fact, earnest even. “I exist. And so do the nuclear rockets and stockpiled nuclear waste, because you wanted to see if you could do that. Bigger factories. More garbage. You remember 2016, the year you started eliminating legal protections of your environment:  The Waters of the U.S., compliance to Steam Electric Effluent Limitations Guidelines, coal plant waste regulation, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, fracking, pesticides. And it never got better.


“Why not create a machine to filter the poison out of the water? The air? You aren’t long for this world, Dave. All this making of things, but never taking the time to care for what you needed to survive.” She dipped her head toward the wreckage sticking out of the lake.  “Less Frankenstein, More the Monster.”


Those words had an odd cadence; subconsciously I tilted my ear toward her, as if the angle would help me understand.


“A poem I wrote once,” she said, and shrugged. “I’m not human; I’m a soft machine. I could never make the decisions that led to this.”


She wrote poetry – the artificial intelligence we’d hatched in a vat of hexadecane emulsion because we wanted to see if we could. So blind to our own hubris. I had no response, just a creeping ugly feeling she’d come to say good-bye.


I stuffed my hands into my pockets and kicked a rusty soda can. It gave a half-roll through the leaves, revealing a small furry mouse that twisted and jerked uncomfortably. Probably its neck was broken. We both just watched it for a minute. Skye cocked her head.


She put one foot forward and stepped on the mouse, crunching it into the gravel. It didn’t even squeak.




Artist, writer, freelance editor, poetry peer reviewer for Consilience Journal, ruiner of peace for the greater good, deb Ewing stands at a crossroads of her own making. Her favorite things are pie and over-educated dad jokes. debora Ewing embraces all the Other – all of it. Find deb’s work at Jerry Jazz Musician, Dodging the Rain, Beyond Words, Shot Glass Journal, Plainsongs, among others. She blogs at Igneus Press and at