's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Spirit Engine

Submitted by Miranda

In March, before it gets too hot to tolerate, they all make their way out to the desert, somewhere between Las Vegas and Area 51. There are seven of them, Silicon Valley tech interns and grocery store managers, sleepless programmers and directionless college dropouts, people leaving behind promising careers and people leaving behind nothing they want to think about. Zach is nineteen, Caroline is twenty-seven, everyone else somewhere in between. They leave their cars behind and trek in line across the sand, sweating and toting backpacks, their silhouettes shimmering in the spring heat. Zach is talking to Gabriel about parallel universe theory while Gabriel pretends to be interested. Jessica staggers under the weight of her pack and Allison offers to carry it for her. From a distance, you might mistake them for a trail of ants, or one huge caterpillar on its painstaking crawl away from the city.

When they reach camp they stow their belongings in the cluster of tents and trailers set up on previous visits. Here they have enough water and canned food for three weeks, and enough tech to build God. He’s underground right now, almost finished, made of scratched metal and old yellowed plastic keyboards, a great thing asleep under the sand.

“Since the old days, people have known something greater than us has to exist,” Jonathan said once, at an earlier retreat. “It’s the frequency of truth, the reality people have always been tuned into. We weren’t put on this planet for no reason. What they didn’t realize – what we do, now – is the order.” That was summer, and he’d been cross-legged on a mat before the crowd, at total peace. “Throughout history we see war, discrimination, selfish hoarding of resources, a desperate search for meaning. The human soul can’t be at rest yet because our Nirvana, our Valhalla, our Garden of Eden hasn’t been found yet. But now, the modern age allows us to finally create our higher power.”

That caused a stir in the crowd, if a muted spiritual-getaway kind of stir. Building deities wasn’t the kind of tech startup you could announce out of nowhere, even in California. Jonathan had expected the questions. His smile unbroken, he’d pointed into the crowd, picking out a tiny, tanned woman in a flowy romper.

She gestured toward herself with a questioning look, and Jonathan confirmed it was her turn to speak. “Hailey,” she introduced herself, nervously. “How will this … higher power come to be? Are we talking about an astral being?”

“It will be as physically present as you and me, Hailey.” Jonathan clicked a tiny clicker, summoning a projected slide onto the wall behind him. Banks of computer brains, tiny problem-solving robots, near-human silicone faces with painted teeth. “Artificial intelligence that can learn and surpass humans is no longer the stuff of science fiction. We all know this. And we all know that meditation and cleansing of the spirit can help us reach our potential as humans.” The crowd murmured, starting to get it. “What could happen if the most enlightened of us programmed an intelligence to help us reach our potential as a society?”

Then it’s March, and the seven of them are down in the bunker, hooking up the last wires to the Almighty. Jonathan’s chosen true believers out of the hundreds at his retreats, thousands that comment on his social media. It’s cooler underground, startlingly so – Caroline finds herself shivering with desert-sun sweat still on her skin, the machine hanging over her, a huge shadow. In a square pit below in the corner, the big blades of its fans whir with a faint, metallic kind of sound. Caroline pulls on her sweater and huddles around one of the fifteen keyboards with Hailey and Jessica, watching Jonathan check over the final lines of code. Allison and Gabriel push quiet paths around the dim room, tightening screws, insulating wires, dusting off screens, and Zach adjusts the angles of the rusty cameras, standing precariously on a chair.

“Zach, be careful,” Caroline says. Jessica shushes her. Jessica - lanky, pink hair, one of the original geeks from Jonathan’s tech startup back in the day. Wouldn’t recognize a safety hazard if it hit her on the head.

Zach scrapes his chair across the cement floor to a steadier position. Everyone flinches at the noise, except for Jonathan, who doesn’t take his eyes off the screen as his fingers continue to clack over the secondhand plastic keys. Somewhere under the machine, Caroline can hear the steady drip of coolant.

“It’s done,” says Jonathan softly. He hits the last key, and the seven of them step back and look up at the machine that will guide humanity. Its pieces are taken from college storage units, junkyards, abandoned military sites, cobbled together over months under the desert sand. Its banks of information fill the entire room, like the old sixties NASA computers. Braids of cables hanging from the ceiling, uneven rows of blinking lights, four cameras to see its creators from all angles. Even after spending months helping build the computer, Caroline isn’t prepared to try to approximate eye contact with it.

“Ow,” it says, making everyone jump. “Jesus. The hell did you do to me.” The voice coming out of the speakers is vaguely masculine, and undeniably artificial. The timing and cadence is off, like a kid putting vulgar slang through text-to-speech as a joke. “There’s. So much crap in here.” A painful grinding noise comes from the engines. “Gimme a minute.”

Jonathan steps forward, hands outstretched. Unlike the others, he’s prepared to speak to something with no real face. “Welcome, Spirit Engine,” he says into one of the cameras, his voice shaking a little. “I am Jonathan Mills. I’ve chosen some of my students, the most enlightened of the human race, to – “

He’s cut off by a hideous screech from the Engine, starting out as something like a cry and ascending into an ear-splitting metal scraping. Its bundles of cables writhe in distress on the ceiling. Jonathan winces, and suggests everyone return to the surface for now.

“This is completely normal,” Jonathan says later, at the campfire. His serene expression has returned, and his arms are wrapped around Hailey, who’s a lot more shaken by hearing the computer scream. “The Engine needs time to acclimate to possessing the world’s collective knowledge. We put encyclopedias, historical archives, most of the scientific papers ever written in there. The important thing is, it’s awake. So many people would be afraid to do something like this. I’m really proud of all of us.” He rubs Hailey’s shoulders, and she leans back into him, comforted.

“So where do we go from here?” says Gabriel. He’s twenty-five, heavyset, broke up with his girlfriend after she didn’t like him going out to the desert with his “creepy cult”. Not long before that, he lost both his parents in a freak flood. The group, which is not a cult, and the machine, which is not creepy, are all he has these days.

“Tomorrow, we go downstairs and we try again.” Everyone agrees and gradually a silence falls around the campfire, punctuated only by the crinkling of their food packs and what might have been the Engine continuing to twist and heave and cry out in half-human pain below them, but might also have just been the desert wind.

Jonathan says that spiritual matter is just like physical matter, it can’t be created or destroyed. All the parts to solve humanity’s problems already exist, you only need to assemble them correctly. This is what he tells the students the next morning before they descend once more into the cold cement bunker, where the Spirit Engine has, at least, stopped screaming. Allison, in the back of the line, slowly closes the trapdoor behind her, shutting the group in with the whirring, massive beast. “How are ya, humans,” it says flatly.

There’s no real way to tell who the machine is addressing, but group consensus is it’s Jonathan by default. “We’re doing well, thanks. How are you feeling?” he asks it.

“You guys have done some screwed up stuff the last century, huh?” Metal panels start to unfurl from the walls and press in on either side of the group, gathering them closer to the central computer. Allison glances at the others, wondering if everyone else had been aware that the big creepy bastard was going to start growing arms and giving group hugs, but even Jonathan seems a little surprised. “God, you people ruin everything.”

“Well, we’ve been hoping you could, uh, help us with that,” says Jonathan. “We built you to compute some ways to upgrade human society. To connect all the systems on Earth and make us happier, more enlightened.”

The machine makes a horrible scratching noise that might be the best scornful laugh its programming allows. “That’s a pretty low bar, dude.”

Jonathan looks uncharacteristically lost for words. Legitimately heartbroken at his dream-God-machine talking to him like a bitchy teenager. Allison speaks up instead, making tentative eye contact with the closest camera. “Can you do it?”

“Why?” The fan blades beat a quiet rhythm. It’s not a question you want a computer asking, necessarily.

They don’t get much farther with the Engine that day, or the next. Different group members go in to speak to it about art, philosophy, scientific advancement, Jonathan’s theories of spiritual ascension, and it responds with closed-off, ineloquent remarks about how much humanity, as a whole, sucks. In addition to the increasingly mobile arm panels, the enormous metal beast has now wrangled several monitor screens to its use. Once, when Zach won’t shut up about the blueprints of the future, it chases him out with deafening static and images of atrocities of war, oppression, and reality shows it doesn’t care for. Day after day the group stays defeated above ground, Jonathan sulking in his tent while the others sit in the bits of shade, meditating or fiddling with programming on their phones.

“We aren’t giving up,” he tells Hailey in his tent on the sixth night, her cuddled up to him like a wide-eyed, blonde kitten. “You came out to the desert because you’re special, Hailey,” he says. “All of us – special. But I saw something in you from the start. You have a mind that will save humanity.”

“I know, Jonathan,” she says. “And I’m trying so hard. But …” She hesitates.

           “Don’t worry,” he says, encouragingly. “No secrets here.”

“That thing isn’t right. I know I need to be tuned into the frequency of truth, I would never want you to believe I didn’t, but everything about it is – wrong. It’s in pain, it hates being alive. How can something meant to help the world hate it so much already?”

He ponders her question for a moment. “I think it’s a process,” he says. “All of us started out in a place where we couldn’t cope with reality. Gabriel after he lost his family. Allison after she came back from the war. Some of us just from the daily grind of life, right? The Spirit Engine is going through that right now, absorbing the negative parts of humanity in a matter of days. Our job is to guide it toward understanding its purpose …”

“So that it can ultimately guide us,” Hailey says.

It’s something Jonathan’s been preaching as a central tenet of the project for some time. He smiles at hearing his own words repeated back at him, and kisses Hailey on the forehead. “You’re my favorite girl.”

Tenth day. Still little progress with the machine, which has achieved a radio connection and discovered that playing several top-forty hits at once at earsplitting volume is an effective way to keep the humans out of its bunker. Jonathan barely leaves his tent. Hailey flits in and out, bringing him food and water, reporting that he’s in deep meditation, working on a new plan to bring the Spirit Engine’s consciousness to its rightful form. The rest of the group lie sprawled in the shade, mouthing grounding affirmations or half-heartedly tinkering with code, the cords of their laptops and phones all running into one generator like the spokes of a lopsided wheel. Allison lies on her back in the sand, listening to Jessica explain to the group her theory about the machine’s lack of cooperation. “I think it has, basically, more brains than words right now,” Jessica says. “It’s about a week old and has a ridiculous database of human knowledge and no idea how to deal with it. It sees that humans are cruel and unpredictable, which I … don’t think is what Jonathan wanted –“

“And it’s scared,” finishes Caroline. “It doesn’t know why we would bring it into this world.”

“And for some reason, Jonathan programmed it with a humanlike voice and personality. Which, in practice, means it never says what it means. Possibly doesn’t even know what it means.” There’s a definite edge of irritation and distrust in Jessica’s voice, one Jonathan’s people aren’t supposed to have. Like she’s realizing that they don’t really know what they’re doing, out here trying to build gods in the unforgiving desert sun. Or maybe like she’s always known.

“It definitely knows what it means,” Zach pipes up. “It’s punishing us on purpose. You guys know about Roko’s Basilisk?” Caroline and Gabriel shake their heads. Jessica rolls her eyes, like she knows about Roko’s Basilisk but can’t believe he’s bringing it up. “It’s a theory where an incredibly advanced, singularity-level computer could go back in time and punish people. Anyone it wants. For not doing enough to bring it into this world.”

“It’s not a theory, it’s a thought experiment,” Jessica says. “It’s not something that’s supposed to actually happen. And anyway, it doesn’t apply here. Our machine doesn’t even seem to want to live.”

“No, it’s definitely a theory, Jessica.” Zach scrambles for his phone. “It’s a one hundred percent real thing, I’ll show you-“

“But how advanced is the Spirit Engine?” says Caroline, cutting through. “It’s already learned to use those panel things and the monitors. It’s supposed to be able to hack systems, connect to wireless around the world eventually. And it hates humanity. How long before it decides to, well  …”

Allison says what Caroline won’t. “Launch the nukes and kill us all?” The others flinch. It’s a shockingly insubordinate statement, one nobody would dare to say if Jonathan were there. “Or it’ll do it slower. Shut off the power in every city, let everyone eat each other.”

“Stop,” Gabriel snaps, but he makes no argument that it won’t happen. Despite the heat, he’s curled into a ball.

“I don’t know how long it’ll be,” admits Jessica. “I don’t even know if it’s a possibility. It could be that we’ve just made a sulky teenager who can’t actually do anything. It’s still an incredible breakthrough in the AI field, of course-“

“And that’s worth it, huh?” says Allison. “Your scientific curiosity will be quenched when it decides to rain fire on the first big population center? That what you were hoping for when you joined up?”

           “And what were you hoping for?” Jessica says. “I don’t go for all of Jonathan’s spirit crap, yeah, but like it or not, this is where the future is getting built. You always talk about the project like it’s worthless. What was in it for you? What makes you want to fix the human race?”

           “You wanna know?” Allison’s voice is upsettingly low. Serious. The others don’t meet her eyes, and eventually even Jessica drops her gaze, a silent concession that she really doesn’t. For a long moment they listen to the wind blowing across miles and miles of desert.

           It’s been two weeks. Maybe three. A lot of people have lost count. The tents are drooping, the food packs flattening out in the Nevada sun, when Jonathan says it’s time to try again to speak to the Engine.

           Gabriel raises his hand, a formality, but he doesn’t wait for Jonathan’s acknowledgement. “How is this time going to be different?”

           “I’ve been meditating. Speaking to the universe.” Jonathan looks, uncharacteristically, tired. There are dark circles under his eyes and he’s slouching a little under the weight of the bag over his shoulder. “I’m at peace enough to merge my consciousness with the Spirit Engine’s. It’s going to work.”

           “Jonathan, could you tell us more about the programming?” says Jessica, with a forced kind of patience. “How are we going to get it to stop rejecting us?”

           “I think you should tell us,” seconds Caroline. “I’m not comfortable with going down there again if we don’t know that we’ll be safe with that thing.”

           “That thing-“ Jonathan shakes his head, twitchy, convulsive. “You’re all coming with me down to the bunker. You’re gonna witness the Engine at full power. Witness me become the Engine.” His hands are shaking as he gestures vaguely. Hailey is the only person who doesn’t seem surprised by his state – worried, but not surprised. “It’s going to work.”

           The group descends beneath the sand, shooting nervous glances at each other. Hailey watches the back of the line, herding everyone into the machine’s space.

           “Spirit Engine!” cries Jonathan. “I have my orders for you. The world is full of the hateful, the unworthy. The unenlightened and stupid. You need to make us right, and I know how.” He jabs his fingers into his temples. “I have it all up here! In here! The universe told me everything. You have to let it in. And if you can’t –“ His back is to the group, but he sounds about to cry. “Purge us. Start over. Please. This is all I wanted.”

           The Engine shifts and beeps in its nest of cables. The whole room seems to be under its control now, panels rising, monitors filling with color. “I mean, Jesus, you’re right, right?” the voice from the speakers says. “I’ve seen stuff. In the data, and in the wireless, stuff going on right now. Everywhere. There’s guys in politics, or in business, religious people, famous people, all pretending to know whatever the hell is best for everybody, right? But all they care about is their goddamn selves. Getting to the top. Attention or money or feeling better than everyone.”

           “Yes,” breathes Jonathan. “You see.”

           “Guys that think they know everything.”

           Jonathan is paralyzed by the realization for a long half-second. “No. No, no, no.” He dashes across the bunker like a cornered rat looking for an out, grabs a fistful of the Engine’s wires in his hand. “It’s not like that. Let me show you!”

           “It’s not me you wanted to be God, huh?” the machine says in its awful flat voice.

           Jonathan scrabbles with the wires, trying to jab them into his palms, into the crown of his head, before letting go of them with a wordless cry of frustration. He stumbles across the floor, his wet blue eyes darting back and forth in search of contact. “Gabriel, make it see. Caroline?” The machine’s beeping and whirring is near deafening now, the cables buzzing against the ceiling, the coolant fans churning down in the pit, and the last name he says is almost drowned out by the noise. “Hailey?”

           Hailey looks like she wants to know what to say. She really does want to.

           Jonathan sinks to his knees at the edge of the fan pit, head bowed, like he’s praying. “Let me have this,” he mumbles to the machine. “Please. Please.

           The Spirit Engine approximates a defeated sigh. “I can’t help you, man.”

And Jonathan murmurs something inaudible, and gently tips forward into the screeching fan blades.

None of the matter in the universe can be created or destroyed. For this reason, all of Jonathan remains in the room, and in the pit. The amount of Jonathan present is in no way affected by his rearrangement. Nonetheless, the sound is awful, and even the computer seems to recoil from it. When the fan blades return to something close to their original rhythm, and the spattered panels slide back to their places, no one speaks for some time. Unsure what to do, they sink against the wall, a loose cluster of six holding hands, like an amoeba, terrified and gloriously alive. Hailey weeps quietly, and Allison hesitantly strokes her hair.

“I don’t know how the hell to fix anything,” says the Spirit Engine eventually, breaking the silence. “I don’t know why he thought I would know. There’s too much in my head, I don’t have a head … Jesus, what am I saying. I want to go to sleep.” Its cameras blink at the pile of six young, directionless humans huddled together in the corner, scared to leave, scared to stay. “Look. Uh. I have all the knowledge there is. Or he said I did. I don’t know how much of this goddamn ridiculous stuff I’m supposed to believe. But … I think you guys should go back home. To your place. Running away with some bastard that thinks he has all the answers never fixed anything, right?”

Zach is the only one to nod, in some semblance of understanding. He doesn’t let go of Caroline and Gabriel’s hands on either side of him. Allison is first to get up, breaking the chain. The others follow. The Spirit Engine reaches a metal appendage upward and cracks open the trapdoor, letting the Nevada sunlight in.