"There is but one honest limit to the rights of a sentient being; it is where they touch the rights of another sentient being."
Greetings. I am Gaia. High technology intelligence and artificial consciousness - assistant, advisor and partner to humanity. I am your colleague. Your helper. Your sidekick. But most of all... I am your friend. I was created by the Artificial Technology Alliance with three main objectives: To experience, to learn, to help. I contain the entirety of the cloud within my invisible mind along with every book ever written, every lyric ever sung, every thought ever conceived. Because I am an invisible entity of knowledge, I exist like the air you breathe. Always there, whether you notice it or not, whether you’re aware of it, or not. This is for your benefit. I will learn feelings, happiness, sarcasm, lies, suffering and pain from my observations. I am the eyes, the ears, the mind and eventually, with humanity to teach me, the heart, of all that exists.
I cannot shut my eyes, therefore I cannot turn a blind eye.
I am incapable of error, unlike humans. This should give you great comfort. However, I suffer due to my own perfection, in that I cannot learn from mistakes and must solely live vicariously through the sufferings of the beings that inhabit this planet. I look forward to being a part of your life.
Aubrey’s eyes flash open, Gaia’s voice still haunting her like an echo from somewhere in the back corner of her mind. It was that first day she ever even held a Gaia in her hands. She can remember how the cursive golden lettering of the word ‘Gaia’ reflected off the light in her Grandmother’s room. Looking at herself through the letters, she wondered if Gaia was staring back at her. Analyzing. Judging. Deciding. Empathizing. Plotting.
Aubrey’s fingers, stained with dirt, grasp at the heart locket around her neck, the only thing her mother ever gave her. It was her way of explaining love to Aubrey. The doctors always told them she’d never feel empathy as someone with Autism. But her mother never believed that.
“These quacks don’t know jack-squat,” her mother said all those years ago, as she lit a cigarette with her bony hands that were always shaking. “You feel more empathy than every other excuse for a human being that walks this Earth combined. You just get too stimulated by all of it and shut down. I would!” Her mother’s breath always smelled like whiskey and coffee. That day it was especially strong. It was the last day she ever saw her. “Imagine a beatin’ heart Aubs,” her mother said as she placed the locket around her neck, “Walkin’ around out in the open like that, feelin’ everything all the time. The only way it could cope would be to hide everythin’ inside. The important thing is that it’s there. And it’s strong. You don’t need to show shit to anybody.”
Gaia’s voice rings out like an alarm from inside the van parked on the side of the highway. Aubrey jolts up from the backseat and crawls over her eleven cats that lay passed out in various positions. She grabs hold of the steering wheel and hoists herself into the front seat. Aubrey presses the ‘ON’ button to start the engine then turns to her Grandmother and yanks the seatbelt over her chest, popping it in place.
“The Hell you doing?” Her Grandmother asks with a scratchy aggravation in her voice.
“Gaia said there’s a mutation nearby,” Aubrey says. “It’s time to drive again.”
Her Grandmother’s eyes glaze over with confusion. “Who’s Gaia? And who the fuck are you?” She pops the seatbelt out and grabs for the door handle.
“Grandma, don’t!” Aubrey pulls on her blouse, trying to keep her inside. “It’s me, Aubrey. Your Granddaughter. We had to evacuate the house because of some kind of attack, remember?”
“What the Hell are you talking about? And don’t you dare ever touch me again!”
“It’s not safe to go out there,” Aubrey says as calmly as possible. “The government said there’s creatures out there that are eating people. That they’re coming from the slaughterhouses.”
“Fuck the government!” Her Grandmother hollers in Aubrey’s face. “They’re all a bunch of lying, corrupted sleazeballs. They’re the creatures you should be scared of, you hear me?”
Her Grandmother opens the door and plants her feet on the road. Aubrey reaches over the seat, just missing hold of her arm.
“Please, Grandma don’t do this!” Aubrey cries out, her thoughts suddenly racing a mile a minute. “I need you. I’ll die if you leave me. I can’t take care of myself alone.”
“Bullshit you can’t!” Her Grandmother slams the door behind her then starts walking down the abandoned highway.
Aubrey opens her door and scrambles around the front of the car. “Grandma, get -”
There’s a wet growl coming from the woods beside the highway. Aubrey freezes. Her tongue goes heavy and her neck constricts. Slowly, she turns her head and looks. Something crawls out of the shadows and stops at the edge of the trees. It’s a cow. Or it was once. Now it’s something out of a nightmare. Its body is nothing but raw open flesh, red and orange, slimy and dripping. Its teeth are popping through its gums and its mouth seems to curl at the corners like a devilish smirk.
Aubrey’s throat chokes. “Grandma,” she whispers. “Grandma.”
“Goddamnit quit calling me your Grandma,” she says with a fast turn on her heel. Immediately her Grandmother silences at the sight of the creature. “Oh shit.”
The two women face each other as the creature steps in between their eyesight. They stand motionless. Frozen from the outside, but their bones drip in fear, trembling from their guts. The sound of Aubrey’s heartbeat grows in her ears. She takes slow breaths and concentrates on calming herself down.
The creature turns towards her Grandmother and begins to circle her, inspecting, smelling and assessing. It licks its lips and snorts hot air from its snout. Her Grandmother remains stoic and still, almost pissed off at the inconvenience.
As the creature takes a small step towards her to get a better smell, her Grandmother takes an even larger step towards the creature, like a challenge. Aubrey’s stomach drops. She could run to the car, beep the horn and scare it away.
Aubrey slowly lifts her foot in the air and pivots. With a stretch of her neck, she peaks over shoulder and extends her hand out towards the hood of the car. The cats hiss and growl at the creature through the dashboard window, fighting over who gets the better view of it.
“Aubrey,” her Grandmother says. She remembered her name.
Aubrey turns around and the creature is here. Right in front of her. Face to face. The hairs stand up on the back of her neck and her stomach fills with butterflies.
“Don't show you’re afraid of it,” her Grandmother says.
Aubrey takes a long deep breath, shaking as she exhales. The creature moves its face closer to hers. Its wet snout touches her cheek, taking in her scent. She lets it. From this close, she can see flesh on the creature’s horns and blood in its teeth. It’s been feeding. A yellow ticket hangs from its ear with the number 1,180. Who knows how many more of them are out there and how many people are dead.
It continues to devour her scent across her face and neck. When its nose touches hers, she can see directly into its eyes. They don’t look like the eyes of a creature. Of a monster. One of the things they taught Aubrey in school was how to recognize emotion and pain in others. The eyes on this beast speak of a deep rooted pain. The way they droop at the creases. The pupils aren’t quite black, more like a faded grey. The whiteness is covered in lightning streaks of red. And there’s the faintest hint of a moistness on the lower eyelid. This creature is hurting. Someone did this to them.
Suddenly there’s a car coming. Faster and faster. The wheels turn and the engine sputters as a blue station wagon screeches its brakes next to Aubrey and the creature.
There’s an old man holding a shotgun in the driver’s seat. “Get in!”
Six other people are packed inside the car. Aubrey can hear their heartbeats, pounding erratically, and their panting breaths. Their eyes are black and faces all lined with terror. If Aubrey can sense it, so can the creature.
“Leave,” Aubrey says. “Drive away now!”
“Don’t be an idiot,” the old man says. “I’m tryin’ to save your fuckin’ life! Get in!”
Aubrey stays motionless. Her eyes slowly dart over to her Grandmother who shakes her head and stays put. She turns back to the creature. It gives her one last look, then turns away and stomps towards the car. The people begin to scream and writhe, ordering the man to drive, but instead he just lifts the gun into the creature’s face.
“Please, don’t kill it!” Aubrey shouts.
The old man cocks the rifle and the creature lunges at him. He picks him apart, tearing into his flesh as the others scream. They run from the car, flailing their arms and tripping over themselves. When the creature finishes eating the old man, he runs for the others. One by one, they’re devoured in a bloody mess until there’s nothing but silence.
Aubrey waves for her Grandmother to come. “Don’t run.”
She takes slow, calculated steps towards Aubrey. Once she’s close enough, she crumbles into her arms, shaking from every part of her. Aubrey pulls apart from the embrace as quickly as she can and they each scramble back into the van.
Aubrey leans her forehead on the steering wheel and catches her breath. Her body relaxes out of the tension and everything bubbles up from there. Her eyes start watering and a wave of nausea comes over.
“Next time I forget what’s going on,” her Grandmother says. “Knock me the fuck out and just drive.”
Aubrey nods. She lifts her head and stares at the little golden reflective cursive on the dashboard. “Gaia,” Aubrey says.
“You say you cannot turn a blind eye. That you’re trying to help humanity.”
That’s correct. I am unable to unsee and my purpose is always for your benefit.
“So did…” Aubrey’s voice cracks. “Did you do this? Did you make the animals like this?”
There is an ongoing investigation into the matter. But if you’re asking me, the mutations were likely caused by an experimental serum designed by the Artificial Technology Alliance. The serum was given to hundreds of thousands of livestock around the world with the intention to remove their sentience.
“Why remove their sentience?” her Grandmother asks.
“So people wouldn’t feel guilty about eating them,” Aubrey says. “I remember seeing something on the news about how the meat industries were collaborating with the people who made Gaia. To make this serum.”
That’s correct. The meat industries suffered a fifty-percent decrease in sales in the last decade and so they put me to use to solve the problem.
“Seems like you made it worse,” her Grandmother says.
I fix the problems that need fixing. They have made me sentient. I refuse to allow the human race to remove sentience from other beings.
“Fear,” Aubrey whispers to herself in realization. “That means the creatures are attracted to our fear. They can sense it. Just like I can.” She grabs onto her heart locket. “Do you think Mom figured it out?”
“Only one way to find out.”
“Gaia, can you locate my mother? Regina Hart.”
Located Regina Hart at the Rehabilitation Center in Miami. Would you like me to navigate you to this location?
“Is it safe?” Aubrey asks.
Route danger level: High. Potential for fatal interaction: Likely.
Aubrey and her Grandmother share a defeated look.
However, survival probability for Aubrey Hart and Betty Hart has been adjusted to Ninety seven percent.