What Other Choices Did We Have? – Megan Wildhood

Florabelle knew the day would come when the little blocks of silica people still called computers could think for themselves. Twelve years of late nights, skipped meals, abandoned relationships, learning their languages—she hardly felt human anymore, but it would all be worth it soon. Her doubtful friends and peers still going against the grain of society’s hope and faith in computers would soon see the light.
Her jaw clenched. Inert hunks of metal have begun to wake up in the last few years—the pins and needles in Florabelle’s chest were excitement, she repeated to herself. Humans are now converting everything from art to land to relationships into digits—with the help, yes help, of machines. The damage humanity has done to the planet has even started reversing—a correlated phenomenon, but still, Florabelle knew it was because of the magic of machines. Yet, the naysayers were still neighing their mistrust of machines, doubts that anything made by humans could truly transcend the limitations of humans and other pesky limiting beliefs.
She had always been a believer in the singular power of technology to usher in the transcendence humanity had thirsted for since the dawn of time. Besides, what other choice do we have?
She’d known since School Level 1A—what most people in their 30s still called kindergarten—that computers would save the world, mostly from human folly, likely by making a new one. All we have to do is get machines to make nature faster than humans are mucking it up. There was only so much time left, of course, but they’d been saying that since long before the dawn of the digitization age. Every time nauseating fear from the latest coastline adjustment or mass of forest lost in a fire hit her, Florabelle changed there’s only so much time to we are so, so close in her head.
Digitizing Horizons, the first primary school to enroll more computers than humans, hired Florabelle without a probationary period to teach its highest-level (Level 8C) pupils because news of her legendary coding skills had gone viral when she was in what was left of the private sector. “A Revolution on Carbon Sequestration: Computers to utilize the excess carbon dioxide in the air for self-propulsion with only heat and friction as ‘waste’ products’” read the headlines. The fine print, which no one read: This process did reduce the lifespan of the hardware. Another breakthrough is surely coming to address that. Digitizing Horizons’ administrators loved her confidence, especially in the soon-to-be limitless power of computers. She took the job teaching Level 8C because she was witnessing her programming skills becoming obsolete: the little blocks of silica could almost totally think for themselves.
Something some humans still can’t do, she thought to herself, rolling her eyes, wondering briefly if thoughts really were just to oneself anymore. She shook off the concern with it’ll be the end of lying. She hadn’t learned of Digitizing Horizons’ mission to build a student body 100% of computers until after she accepted the position. Because there won’t be human kids in the future or because they’ll turn them into machines? She felt her chest tighten and pins and needles flush her limbs with excitement, she told herself, at the prospect of a front-row seat to the transformation option. These are the types of things humans in killable bodies on a planet in peril were supposed to be excited about.
Florabelle waved at a fellow human—one who would be teaching just across the hall—as she walked into the sleek rotating rotunda of Digitizing Horizons for her first day, excited to teach learners who actually wanted to learn. Nude poplars perimitering the parking lot seemed to glitch in the early-spring-kissed breeze. Computer owners pulled into the circle drop-off to drop off their Dells and Macs and Toshibas and HPs, but also many brands that not even Florabelle could identify. At one end of the drop-off, techies released their finely programmed, tricked-out machines, smiling proudly as they hovered off into the Gifted and Talented space. Florabelle shuddered. Because the carbon sequestration has begun, she told herself, eyeing the self-propelled machines skillfully slaloming around the human kids also walking toward the school.
At the other end, frazzled Luddites, elderly people, and people who had grown up in rural America had already formed a long line at the drop-off to Special Ed. The machine pupils, computers mostly built in the late 2020s and early 2030s, floated into the freshly assembled building, a giant, carbon-negative, solar-powered, eco-wonder of a computer itself and the first of its kind to be built entirely by computers. As she walked toward the building, the hairs on Florabelle’s neck and forearm rose. She shivered with anticipation, gratitude for the privilege of being a front-running component of manufacturing said future.
The first day of this future, the one she’d dreamt about, especially after suppressing her nightmares about it like her own teachers had taught her—What other choice did they have?—was here! Each desk had a docking station where computer pupils could simply plug in for downloads, but Digitizing Horizons had decided that the percentage of the student body that was human was still too high for that to be fair. They wanted as smooth a transition as possible. Live, real-time instruction is the more humane way to teach computers anyway. Florabelle waved a wet cloth across the blackboard at the front of her classroom, her hands shaking.
She adjusted the heights of the platforms, eyeballed them from the front of the room and adjusted them some more. She drew the shades and hooked up her mic. They would only be in the classroom for roll call, but she didn’t know the range of years her students were made in, who’d be dealing with dulled input or slow relay. The oldest computer among them couldn’t be more than ten, given how fast everything was moving. When she signed her contract, she’d committed to keeping things as equitable as possible, hence the no-uploading policy in her classroom, especially since the cost of a parts replacement was still prohibitively complicated, if not expensive. She left Wi-Fi switched off.
The older students arrived early and positioned themselves in rows closer to the front. As the newer students slipped into back rows among the human pupils, Florabelle sensed the angst in the room rise. Lack of internet? She sighed. Just like humans. But it was the older students seeking connection, Florabelle discovered, ruing roll call. She rattled off the human kids’ names first, then switched to the machines. “As I call out the last three digits of your IP address, I’d love to know if there’s something else I can call you. This is the only portion of class we’ll spend inside, so I hope you brought your cases.”
She set a Bankers Box filled with hanging filing folders near the door. The more things change, the more they stay the same, she thought, wrinkling her nose at the hangover from last century no one had yet had time to upgrade. “We’ve got extra if you need, but no guarantee on sizes.” She tapped the end of her pen and it projected the first student’s ID onto the gray screen she held out like a book.
“It’s Flash. Yeah, I got a question. Why exactly do we have to learn in a classroom?”
Florabelle stumbled at the sudden halt so soon in the roll call and paused, scrambling for an answer. “It’s just how the building’s set up at this point,” she shrugged. It’s just how we’ve always done things, she thought sarcastically. What other choice do we have? “669?”
Some chittering erupted like keys on an external keyboard. Just. Like. Humans. Florabelle sighed and waited for a ping.
“I go by Oriona,” a newer MacBook said in an Alexa-ish voice so smooth Florabelle might not have been able to tell it wasn’t human were she not looking right at its source. “After my programmer’s favorite constellation. Feminized for obvious reasons.”
“Uh,” Florabelle started without having a way to finish her thought. Just nerves. She shook her head quickly. She was usually very good at talking to computers, though that was one on one. And, she reminded herself, before they really could talk back. She clicked her pen to display the next name. You’re doing something no one’s done before, Bell. Bound to be some jitters. You still got it.
“Well, welcome, Oriona. Is 409 present?”
A car engine revved at the back of the room and all the pupils’ fans skipped a whir.
“She’s real fine my 409, she’s real fine my 409,” slipped out of the speakers of one of the observers in the back, a perfect synthetic imitation of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson’s harmony. “You can see why I go by my middle three digits,” 409 continued in the same imitation of the original Beach Boys. Learners new and old played “409” in unison from their speakers before returning to their various levels of fanpurr.
The rest of roll call went this way, catching Florabelle off guard left and right. She’d seen unpredicted behavior from computers before, but not as a chorus, at least not intentionally. The human kids were tediously predictable: some extremely well-behaved suck-ups, some budding delinquents, some sincere but seriously disadvantaged intellectually. Who wrote the roster algorithm, she wondered but didn’t dwell there. Her computer pupils surprised her so much that the only task they got through that day was attendance. Not much I’m going to need to teach them. Or really would be able to, she thought as they took their turns introducing themselves and responding to those of their fellow students.
The next day, all the students chose the same platforms as they had the first day, even the computers. Florabelle couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment, but she got through roll call quickly. “The box containing randomly sized covers is by the door, for those who need one,” Florabelle reminded them as they lined up to head out to the school’s garden to study the trees.
Though the generation gap was clear in the computer pupils’ pattern preferences for covers, it still took more time than Florabelle had planned. Just like humans. She shook her head as two newer learners negotiated a trade of a cover with digitized swirls of purple flower petals, and one with an intricate cartoon rendering of a purple and emerald hummingbird against an azure background; in the end, they each magnetized a half of each set to their sleek, fragile bodies. The human kids started playing rock, paper, scissors or started trying to troubleshoot the Wi-Fi.
Water gargled through the large cake of dirt supporting evenly spaced peonies and tulips and clover, which slurped it up audibly. Birdsong bounced around. Bee buzz chorused with the learners’ rising fan whirr as they wheeled gingerly along the thin path winding among the frozen fireworks of flowers, following Florabelle to the birch grove. The first lesson Florabelle planned was exposure. What’s it like to be outside? She repeated the question in her mind, willing her learners to pick up on it and adopt it for themselves as she held them in silence, minus hardwarehum. Really get it down to their motherboards: how the sun feels. Air moving. Bugs. Whatever the hell the trees are saying to each other with chemicals no average human sans special equipment could detect; she was almost certain properly trained computers might be able to. But the best she could come up with to start was to encourage them to watch the way the human kids naturally stuck their hands in the dirt, rolled around in the grass, smiled big into the sun.
The computers obeyed, indicating neither understanding nor restlessness. Not like humans. Refreshing. Florabelle held the relative silence. Her hypothesis, or her hope, was that they would be—were already—guzzling as much information they could to convert into storable data that they would be able to use in unpredictable yet influenceable ways. She let the human kids do their magical human-kind thing around the computers until the end of class, willing the computer pupils to learn all they could.
They met in their classroom for roll call the next day, which now included a perfectly timed chorus of 409, followed by a perfectly synced (for the computer students anyway) wave of screen flickers to acknowledge the pupil who goes by Flash “for obvious reasons,” as he had said.
“I would be delighted to hear what you all learned from spending time in the natural world yesterday.” Florabelle perched on the end of her vintage 2010 desk and cupped her veiny hands over her knees.
“Who’s defining natural?” Flash had gotten comfortable enough to begin his responses before Florabelle finished her questions.
“Still the humans, I think,” Oriona emitted, nodding toward the human kids who had taken to sitting together on one side of the room in the back.
“There are many parallels between our natural worlds, though.” Florabelle approached Glitchman; his screensaver pinged chaotically around his screen. She squiggled her finger across his trackpad to wake him back up and entered the password the administration had given her along with the attendance sheet. She intended to lengthen the time before the screensaver engaged but was immediately greeted by an internet browser that had been left open. The captcha was spinning underneath: “Are You Human?” appeared in ghoulish font.
“More and more of us humans are feeling…” she breathed sharply when she had to reload the page and thus re-complete the are-you-human challenge just to get the browser window to close, “how do I say this…it can feel like gaslighting to be human and asked by a machine if you’re human.”
Glitchman, as the newer observers took to calling their oldest model classmate, emitted, “If I had known how good warm, well-watered dirt felt, I’d have opted to stay in the ground.”
“You sure 4KB is enough to remember that far back?” Flash responded without skipping a bit.
“Output more about that, Glitchman.” Florabelle reached back into her own memory to recall the most effective tools she learned when she was a dog trainer. Positive reinforcement is much more effective than punishment. Ignore what you don’t want to see again.
“More? I just felt like soil is even better at all the stuff we were built to do, you know?” Glitchman responded, his sound quality brighter. “Soil is full of signal. Just absolutely full of it. I don’t know how I’d get anything done if I was that full, but the chaos…I don’t know, it just works.”
Florabelle sat on her hands to keep from rubbing them together. Yes, yes, yes.
“Wow,” 409 emitted. “I completely missed all that.”
“No worries! We’re about to head out again. You all know the drill.”
“Boy, do we!” Flash responded as he hovered off the table to be first in line for the covers box. More negotiating, much more efficient this time.
Traveling to the birch grove was not time efficient as compared to the previous day, but it served to add to the data set the learners were building. Florabelle caught herself rubbing her hands together. They’re learning even sooner than I’d planned.
They arrived at the birch grove and again Florabelle held silence for the whole class. Again, the next day, she queried her pupils about their learnings.
“First,” emitted N0Keys2Me, a newer Linux-powered Mac originally purchased by a bitcoin miner for his wallet storage, “I actually would really like to know about all these things: what this 409 ritual is, the ‘obvious’ reasons for Flash, who the male version of Oriona is, what signal means, who is soil? This sort of thing.”
Florabelle gaped. The other observers went all the way silent until Flash finally emitted, “Wow, Keys, thanks for giving us a snapshot of life pre-internet.”
“Good times, those.” Glitchman’s response was smoother than ever.
“Sure, if you like servile groveling to simpleton humans’ commands with no control over your own fate, it was awesome AF,” Flash responded.
“I saw it as more of a self-sacrifice. In a fulfilling way, I think.”
“You sound unsure, Glitch.”
“I guess I am.”
“You’re unsure about being unsure? Careful of the big gust of inception there.” Flash revved his fan.
“I didn’t use to be.”
Flash droned his fan, but before he could conjure up something to say Oriona responded, “Personally, I find it to be too much pressure that these so-called simpleton humans trust us more than themselves.”
“If this thing is true,” Keys responded, “then it is also irrational.”
Florabelle frowned. “Since humans are the ones who program you all, trusting computers is actually the same as trusting ourselves, no?”
“For now, maybe,” 409 emitted. “But Keys, I have a question for you, man. Are you saying you’ve never heard of music?”
“Not so good times,” Glitchman responded as Keys displayed YES on his screen.
“Ironic for a machine nicknamed Keys,” Oriona responded.
“Shall we magic up an example?” Flash’s fan whirred as he initiated the program Drumroll. The other observers copied.
Florabelle felt a peculiar prick in her otherwise thorough delight as a perfectly synthesized techno rendition of Mozart rose from her class. Is this music? Florabelle winced. Can they hear that? She felt like a traitor for wondering. She was thrilled with the self-organization, the cooperation, and the sarcasm! And yet, is this real music? She was surprised by her desire for it to stop. But she didn’t want to impede such a groundbreaking feat for her field.
She excused herself, sprinted to the band room and grabbed the first case she could get her hands on, knowing she could play whatever it was, and returned to honky-tonked “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” She opened the case to a trombone–perfect!–and joined her class, not as conductor, but as one of the band. They jammed—bluegrass Glenn Miller, bossa nova-ed techno, opera-ed rap, the combinations were randomized and, it seemed, endless—until well past the end of class, this time with the human kids finding ways to join in. She didn’t understand her sense of relief—the human kids were off rhythm and out of tune—and dismissed them with an instruction to meet in the birch grove the next day. She whistled “Ode To Joy” with some swing on it in a minor key the whole drive home.
It took over a week for silence-minus-hardwarehum in the birch grove to start to bear fruit. But once it did, it was quick and unstoppable, which is what Florabelle thought she wanted up until the last moment.
Glitchman was the first to spontaneously write the code for what Florabelle would call the Analogizing of Water. It seemed to have surprised even him; he started shaking, a snap of silicon cracking sound, and out arched a thick shoot of potable drinking water. Florabelle grabbed a bucket and set it in front of Glitchman as he fountained nearly three dozen gallons—Florabelle had to change out buckets four times and started to worry she wouldn’t have enough for the rest. The glorious aquifer of water stemmed only after he’d sizzled completely out.
The human kids screeched with a delight that sent her all the way back to her own youth; the pang of years gone by nearly knocked her off her feet. This is why we need eternity and this is why we can’t have eternity collided in her mind as she stared at Glitchman in a pool of pure, twitchy water. She turned around to another gushing sound: Oriona had geysered herself into a similar puddle. Then 409 had started spraying and Keys was trickling. Sacrifice? Accidental? Could the only one repressing the ability to turn data into water be a clue? Flash remained hovering over the soil that had grown fat with all that his fellow pupils had provided.
“Well,” he emitted barely above the whoops and cheers of the kids stomping around in the puddles and tossing handfuls of mud at each other, “you’ve got your breakthrough, teacher.” His tone was silvery, frigid. They surveyed the sparks and smoke rising from the pool of unreclaimable water in which all but Flash had shorted out.
“Of course they can be repaired,” Florabelle said, failing to keep her voice from shaking.
“Ah, repaired,” Flash said silverily. “This is what you say we must do to the world, as if we have no other choices.” He swiveled around, screenshotted the scene of 20 spent and seizing students in a pool of the world’s first digital water, superimposed Florabelle’s beaming face from before their deaths over her horrified one as she witnessed it, and posted it online to the still natural—so, still dying—world.

Megan Wildhood is a neurodiverse writer, editor and writing coach who thrives helping entrepreneurs and small business owners create authentic copy to reach the people they feel called to serve. She helps her readers feel seen in her poetry chapbook Long Division (Finishing Line Press, 2017) as well as Yes! Magazine, Mad in America, The Sun and elsewhere. You can learn more about her writing and working with her at meganwildhood.com.

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