This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
Amanda sat at her desk, picking at the same $30 Little Gem salad she ordered daily, suffering a small burning sensation in her gut that was triggered either by acid reflux or the dying embers of her rapidly expiring conscience. Of course, it was standard procedure for her husband to demand that the security firm Dark Metal surveil potential new hires for any of his multibillion-dollar companies, but this was the first time Amanda had been involved in contracting the private intelligence agency herself. Seedlings is your venture, Reid had promised her, even though he’d named himself CEO. I want you to take the lead on this. Amanda was COO of Seedlings and reported to her husband, who dismissed Amanda’s concerns about the legal ramifications of their actions. Worrying about the law was something poor people did, Reid insisted. Besides, she’d never seen Reid do anything that nefarious with this type of information. He was a nice guy. Really.
Except when he wasn’t.
But Maggie Everett was the type of candidate that pleased Reid. Amanda had done her job, which was to find Maggie, and the people at Dark Metal had done theirs, which was to surveil her and create a comprehensive biographical profile. This seemed like overkill to Amanda. Maggie wasn’t in the running to become a high-profile executive at one of Reid’s billion-dollar firms. She was being interviewed to work at a preschool. A small preschool. With an inaugural class of 10 children. Certainly, Seedlings differed from other private preschools—there was the possibility Maggie would be exposed to confidential information. But this was what NDAs were for. Unleashing a network of spies upon a poor teacher who would ultimately be responsible for 10 toddlers seemed like an absurd waste of resources.
And this was just Phase 1.
Phase 2 would have to wait until after Maggie was hired, of course.
Amanda reopened Dark Metal’s inch-thick dossier. Inside, the story of Maggie Everett. The logline: Maggie was smart but stupid. Smart: She’d majored in English at Yale, then received an MFA in creative writing from Brown, and finally a master’s in early childhood education from Columbia. Stupid: She’d accumulated $103,345 in student debt, which she’d never pay off unless she took a job somewhere like Seedlings. Smart: Schools like Seedlings were attracted to the pedigree Maggie possessed, because parents were obsessed with securing Ivy League futures for their children. Stupid: There was a three-year gap in her résumé. Smart: During that time, she’d found a rich man to get her pregnant. Stupid: She never married him. At her own insistence. She was bisexual and had, at one time, possessed a largely queer friend group who’d been skeptical of the fact she’d settled into a toxic heterosexual relationship with a finance bro named Trent, and so she refused to assimilate to the institution of marriage, as proof of her fealty to a radical queer identity. Trent was happy to avoid getting married—he wouldn’t have to bother with a prenup. But her friends didn’t care whether she got married; they cared that Trent was an asshole. Soon, her closest friendships dissolved, and she became friends with Trent’s friends instead. She got pregnant, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl she named Sophie, and abandoned her teaching career. She didn’t need the money, so why not stay at home raising her daughter, whom she loved more than anyone on earth?
But then, one month ago, Trent disappeared. Ran off with a waitress from their favorite wine bar. Left Maggie with nothing. No money. Nowhere to live—the house was in Trent’s name. She moved to a cramped studio apartment where she and Sophie slept in the same bed. She called and texted and emailed Trent, demanding child support, but each attempt was ignored. She considered taking him to court, but when she’d visited her local child support agency, they’d seemed pessimistic about extracting payment from a man who’d just relocated to his second home on a small private island in the Bahamas, a country that had no treaty with the U.S. for enforcing child support. Regardless, Maggie didn’t have time for this mess. There was a total of $4,325 left in her savings. She needed a job. Now.
She was strong but desperate. Pedigreed but poor. Smart but stupid.
The perfect candidate.
Provided, of course, that Maggie agreed to Phase 2.
But she would. She needed the money. Plus, Maggie happened to suffer from epilepsy.
“Thanks for watching Sophie again,” Maggie said, hanging in the doorframe of Adam’s West Hollywood apartment. They stood on a balcony overlooking a sad pool that served as the centerpiece for the complex. Sophie stood several paces away, peering through the railing, looking down at the water.
“Well, I hope you’re grateful,” Adam replied. “I canceled a Grindr hookup with the hottest and most emotionally unavailable top in West Hollywood for this.”
Maggie laughed. “Seriously—it means a lot to have your support while I’m going through everything …”
“I’m just glad you ditched that douchebag. But while I love Sophie, I hope this means I’ll also see more of you, not just your child.”
Guilt constricted Maggie’s heart: Had she leaned on Adam too much recently? Of all her former friends, he was the only one that remained. She suspected he stuck around because he was lonely; a shy writer she’d known since her Brown days, he had terrible social anxiety, few friends, and no romantic partner. Still, he was her only source of child care, and she worried that even Adam might have a limit when it came to pro bono babysitting.
“Ad-Ad,” Sophie babbled her nickname for Adam. “I go pool?”
“Yes, sweetie.” Adam sighed. “You are the only being on earth who can convince me to ‘go pool’ in water that hasn’t been re-chlorinated since 1984.”
“Thank you.” Maggie gave Adam a ferocious hug. “Love you.”
“Love you too.”
“And after I land this job, I’m hiring a real babysitter and taking the two of us to dinner!”
This couldn’t be right. Maggie stared at her GPS, as if it might explain why she was staring at an impenetrable wall of 15-foot hedges instead of a preschool. She turned right and arrived at a large iron gate, which parted as she approached. She pulled into a circular driveway bordered by vibrant topiary. Amanda, svelte and resplendent in a white linen pantsuit, rushed out of a massive Tudor estate. Maggie admired its charming exterior, its pitched roof, the lush ivy growing up the sides. The sprawling grounds stretched for at least two acres, and with the hedges blocking the world outside, Maggie felt as if she’d been transported from the streets of Bel Air to a lush patch of English countryside. She got out of her used Subaru, embarrassed by the battered vehicle.
“Welcome,” Amanda cooed, sweeping Maggie into a hug.
“Thank you,” Maggie said, surprised by the immediate intimacy of Amanda’s gesture.
In the distance, looming behind the Tudor, stood a strange modernist building incongruous with the traditional architecture of the main house. It was tall and thin, obsidian, with a massive bulbous base that tapered to a point at 20 feet in the air. A seed, Maggie realized as she assessed its exterior. It’s shaped like a giant seed.
It was the school.
“Maggie, I’m not even going to attempt a poker face,” Reid addressed her from his seat on a rainbow-colored floor cushion, which lent a disarming quality to his presence; here was a man worth $8.9 billion, according to the latest fawning profile in Visionaries magazine, who was not afraid to look silly and sit on a floor cushion meant for a preschooler. He had a smooth, bloated face, with blond-bearded jowls and bright blue eyes. He shifted his hefty frame, grabbed Amanda’s knee. Amanda smiled but seemed to shrink in her husband’s presence. “You’re exactly the type of teacher we want to lead us into the next frontier of education.”
“It would be an honor to work here.” And Maggie was honored; she had an audience with Reid Anderson, the famed entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and, of course, visionary. Though, if she were being truthful, she had trouble seeing how Seedlings would “disrupt childhood development” and “create a global revolution impacting every child on earth.” This was preschool: There were only so many ways to “disrupt” finger painting, napping, and farting. “The facilities are beautiful, by the way.”
“Thank you,” Amanda glanced upward, marveling at her own school. Skylights dotted the sweeping vaulted ceilings, flooding the space with light. The room had been decorated to resemble a garden, complete with felt plants, real trees, a green shag rug that mimicked a lawn, and life-size stuffed animals roaming the fields.
“But who cares about the building?” Reid barked, causing Amanda’s smile to collapse. “The real reason I’m here is to create the brightest possible future for children everywhere. We’re already planning construction for Seedlings schools across the globe.”
“This is about more than preschool—this is about the future of the human race,” Amanda insisted, without a trace of irony.
“That and I didn’t wanna deal with drop-off for my kid.” Reid laughed. “So, I built a school in my backyard.”
“Smart.” Maggie chuckled politely, though she doubted there were any circumstances in which Reid would’ve dealt with drop-off; just 15 minutes prior, Maggie had been introduced to 2 of 5 nannies that made up the child care team responsible for providing his son, Cloud, with round-the-clock care.
“So, Maggie. Let’s talk salary,” Amanda said.
“I … guess I’m wondering what you guys were thinking,” Maggie stammered, too desperate for the job to even pretend to negotiate.
“How does 200 sound?” Amanda asked. “Of course, we’d include free tuition for your child.”
Maggie was incredulous. “Two hundred … thousand dollars … a year?”
Reid seemed caught off guard. “I’m sorry. Have we lowballed you?”
“Oh, no.” Maggie laughed, blushing with embarrassment. “That’s very generous.” But undercutting the shock was a more disconcerting feeling; the sum seemed too large for the job—what were the expectations that accompanied such a salary? But surely Maggie was just being paranoid. That money would change her life, save her life. “We have a deal.”
“Great! Our lawyers will draw up the paperwork,” Amanda said. “And now there’s just one more thing we’d like to discuss.”
Maggie lay on the operating table. They’d used local anesthesia; she would remain awake for the surgery. She was assured the procedure would take 20 minutes—quick and painless. Her anxiety grew as the nurse slid a large white machine over her head, locking it into place. The anesthesia prevented her from feeling the apparatus as it gripped her skull; she had the odd sensation of being headless, as if her consciousness were just a floating thing that hovered above her severed neck. A doctor was present, though merely to supervise; the machine was artificially intelligent and would perform the procedure on its own.
A gentle whir. A small drill bored into her skull. She felt nothing other than dread. The machine implanted the TrustLink, a brain-computer interface the size of a dime. It possessed many nearly invisible metal threads that were thinner than human hair, and the apparatus around her skull acted like a sewing machine, threading the micro-electrodes through the brain while producing neuroimaging to ensure that no arteries were pierced. Reid’s BrainTrust venture had never injured a human patient, a fact that placed BrainTrust ahead of its main competition, NeuraGate, which had blinded a man during its first human trials. NeuraGate never recovered from the scandal, and BrainTrust became the most highly valued commercial BCI manufacturer in the world.
At the end of their meeting three days earlier, Reid had offered Maggie a free BrainTrust implant, though offer wasn’t really the right word: While he insisted that this “fun perk” was a “totally voluntary procedure,” he also explained that Seedlings would be the first school to employ “a BCI-enhanced workforce,” with classrooms that possessed attention-sensing interfacing for maximum teacher efficiency. Maggie didn’t need much persuading—she’d long been curious about getting a BCI for medical reasons. Maggie had epilepsy, and the TrustLink had the ability to regulate brain waves and prevent seizures. But after her separation, she’d lost her insurance, and she couldn’t afford a $10,000 BCI out of pocket.
“All done,” the nurse chirped.
Now she’d gotten the procedure for free. How lucky.
“Why you go doctor?” Sophie babbled from her car seat after Maggie picked her up from another unpaid child care session with Adam. “Mommy sick?”
“No, Mommy’s not sick. Mommy got a special chip in her brain that makes her smarter.”
“Yeah, like a computer.”
Maggie laughed. “Yes, computer brain.”
“Mommy computer now?” Sophie asked, eyes wide.
“No, Mommy’s not a computer,” Maggie laughed. “Not yet, at least.”
It was sublime. She felt, at times, like a superhero in the first act of their origin story, when they discover their powers. She was in awe of, sometimes almost frightened by, her new abilities. Her BCI absolutely improved her quality of life. She stopped carrying a wallet because she’d stored her credit card information in her TrustLink; all it took was a glance at a credit card kiosk and she’d paid for groceries. She’d linked her ID too; after a brief second of concentration, she was clear to pass through airport security. Car keys were a thing of the past—she operated her car using only her mind; she used her BCI to unlock the doors, start the engine, answer phone calls over the speaker, even parallel park. She’d had to lease an expensive new Mercedes with attention-sensing interfacing, but she had the money now. And of course her classroom had been outfitted with attention-sensing interfacing as well. She could draft a student progress report in her mind while supervising finger painting. She could dim the lights for naptime without touching a switch. She could pop VR headsets on her students and lead them through metaverse-based learning games without lifting a finger. Reid even generously installed attention-sensing interfacing for every electronic device in her new home, a cute two-bedroom bungalow.
Some nights she cried herself to sleep—tears of gratitude stained her pillow as she drifted off. She was happy, as impossible as that seemed. She and Sophie would be okay. The worst was over.
“Wiggle your fingers up, up, up!” Maggie sang in unison with an animated cat that appeared on the drop-down screen behind her. She controlled the video speed with her BCI, creating the illusion that the animal was following her tempo.
“Wiggle your fingers down, down, down!” Maggie slowed her singing dramatically, and the video matched her pace. The kids burst into giggles. During drop-off, each child was accompanied by a parent or nanny (usually a nanny) who stayed for a short period, participating in group play to ease any separation anxiety the child might feel.
“Nod your head yes, yes, yes!” Maggie sped up the video, and the kids squealed in delight. Across the circle, she made eye contact with Hazel’s mom, whom she’d never seen before. At least not in person—Hazel was always accompanied by her nanny. But today mom came, even more stunning in real life than on television; she sported a blond bob, red lipstick, and a black stretch tunic dress that hugged her toned frame. Maggie’s gaze lingered on the woman’s pouting lips. It had been so long since Maggie had had sex with anyone, let alone a woman. She missed it. Needed it. Suddenly, desperately, she longed to kiss this woman, to gently tongue her full breasts, to slide down her stomach and dive into the sweetness below. And was she crazy to imagine that the shy smirk on Parker Stillwell’s face suggested that the leading candidate for California governor wanted the exact same thing?
“Clap your hands! That’s the end!”
“Bye, Hazel! Mommy’s gonna miss you.”
“Mommy, go!” Hazel pushed her mom toward Maggie, then ran to play with blocks.
“My daughter has no separation anxiety.” Parker laughed. “Whatever you’re doing must be magic.”
“It’s probably just the animal crackers.”
She chuckled warmly. “I’m Parker.”
“Yes, I know …,” Maggie replied, blushing as she did. “I’m Maggie.”
“Yes, I know,” Parker echoed with a flirtatious grin. She offered her hand. Parker’s handshake was warm, insistent, even tender.
“I haven’t seen you at drop-off before.”
“I’ve been on the road most of the year. But I’m finally back for a bit. I wanna get as much Hazel time as I can while I’m in town.” Parker hesitated slightly. “You should come over for a playdate sometime.”
“I’d love that.”
Now it was Parker’s turn to blush. “You and Sophie, I mean.”
“When are you free?”
“How about tonight?”
“The campaign trail is exhausting. Then I come home, and Hazel just gives me this look, like, Mommy, where have you been? And I know she won’t understand, even if I say, ‘Sweetie, I’m doing this for you, for the next generation of Californians.’ But all she can understand is that Mommy is gone for weeks and Daddy barely has time to look after her because he’s running our business on his own. So, our nanny is essentially raising Hazel, and I have this awful guilt, and … and …” Parker burst into tears. She placed her wine glass on the massive marble coffee table in her palatial living room. The house was a Spanish colonial with tall white ceilings, white walls, and beautiful exposed beams. They lounged on a sumptuous gray couch wide enough to function as a bed. Maggie felt deeply moved by Parker’s plight. Maggie knew what it meant to care for a child, knew the feeling of never being enough, knew the burden of that boundless love.
Maggie reached out and touched Parker’s hand.
Parker looked up, wiping tears away.
The sound of Sophie and Hazel giggling drifted in from the next room. Then, the dulcet tones of the nanny reading a book.
Parker caressed Maggie’s hand. Maggie leaned closer. Their lips brushed. Parker tasted like wine. Maggie kissed her, softly, slowly.
Suddenly, the sound of the front door opening.
The women jumped apart.
“Gary, is that you?” Parker called toward the foyer.
Her husband stepped into the room. His tired, angry eyes had bags so dark they looked like bruises. He didn’t greet Maggie, didn’t even acknowledge her presence. He skewered Parker with his stare, then marched into the kitchen.
“It’s … almost bedtime for Sophie,” Maggie stammered. “We better get going.”
The next morning at drop-off, Maggie locked eyes with Parker across the play circle. Parker’s gaze broadcasted a need for comfort, for refuge. Maggie sensed that something had happened after she’d left Parker’s house. Something bad.
Maggie rushed to the end of the Finger Wiggle song. Parents and nannies said goodbye to their children. Maggie drifted toward Parker.
“Is everything OK?” she whispered.
Parker took a breath. “I’m fine. It’s—”
“Parker!” Amanda swooped in. “How are you?”
“Great.” Parker assembled her features into a mask of normality. “Lovely to see you, Amanda.”
“Reid wants to say hi, if you have a minute.”
“Perfect. Follow me.” Amanda ushered Parker from the room, glancing back at Maggie. “Besides, we wouldn’t want to keep Maggie from the kids.”
The phone rang. Amanda’s name appeared on the Mercedes console. Maggie sighed, looked at Sophie in her car seat. “Mommy has to take a call. Can you be a good girl and be quiet?”
“Be quiet,” Sophie agreed.
Maggie answered using her BCI. “Hi, Amanda! Just left for the day. Is everything OK?”
“Oh, yes.” Amanda’s voice came across the car’s speaker. “There’s just a little housekeeping to discuss. Something we forgot to mention when we hired you.”
“We think it’s best if you keep things strictly professional with parents at Seedlings. So no, uh … no pursuing personal relationships.”
“So many of our parents are high-profile. We need to protect their privacy. You understand.”
“Of course.” Despite the newfound happiness Maggie derived from her job, there were also moments she felt an amorphous dread. Little odd moments. Like this one. Did Amanda know about her playdate with Parker? But there was no way Reid and Amanda were surveilling her. That would be absurd. She was a preschool teacher. Surely, billionaires had better things to do.
“Parker Stillwell is evil, Maggie.”
“I can’t believe you made out with a Batman supervillain. A married Batman supervillain.”
Maggie laughed, pushing Adam playfully. They were in Maggie’s new living room, amidst a wreckage of kid stuff: picture books, Barbies, a carton of Goldfish. Sophie babbled to herself on the floor beneath them. “She’s actually really sweet,” Maggie asserted.
“Sweet? She’s a ruthless capitalist who cares only about expanding her corrupt real estate empire and liberating it and all other crooked businesses from any regulation. And who’s funding her campaign? Your boss, Reid, who’s also funded the campaigns of the most diabolical clowns in Washington. And you just turn the other way—”
“Why are you angry at me? I’m not running for anything beyond preschool teacher.”
“I’m not attacking you, I—”
“I’m just trying to get by, OK? And for the record, I’m also a little freaked out by Reid and Amanda. I feel conflicted working for—”
“I don’t know that you do feel conflicted. You seem pretty comfortable—”
“And is that a crime? I deserve a fucking break after the year I’ve had, so just drop it!”
A tense pause. Sophie stopped playing with her Barbie. “Ad-Ad mad?”
“No, Ad-Ad isn’t mad.” Adam sighed, softening. “He loves your mom very much.”
Amanda started hovering. At drop-off. At pickup. Anytime parents were around. Maggie couldn’t even say hello to Parker without Amanda interrupting. Maggie was being watched; she was sure of it. For whatever reason, Amanda didn’t want Maggie to have a relationship with Parker Stillwell. And Parker also stopped making inroads toward friendship. Perhaps Parker had also been warned not to fraternize? The longer Maggie sat with this thought, the more paranoid she became; she was distracted in the classroom, losing her train of thought during lessons, losing her temper with the kids, and, later at home, losing sleep, then coming back to school in the morning even more exhausted and irritable. A week passed—she could no longer tolerate this awful cycle. So, she called Parker. Not sure of what she would say. Not sure if Parker would pick up.
The phone rang. “Hi, Maggie.”
“How are you?”
“Things have been … good.”
Maggie’s pulse sped. “I … I’d love to see you again. Maybe another playdate?”
“I’d love that too …” Parker drifted off. “I’m sorry I’ve been distant. I just … felt embarrassed. About last time. I was tipsy, and—”
“You don’t have to apologize. I … I had a great time.”
Relief overwhelmed Maggie’s senses. Parker had merely felt a little awkward after their kiss. There was no conspiracy to keep them apart. There was a simple explanation. “Well, then. When are you free?”
Dusk settled on the sweeping grounds of the Stillwell estate; perfectly positioned lights illuminated lush flora. Parker and Maggie sat by the pool, which was lit from within; the water shimmered, casting odd reflections on Parker’s face as she sipped her wine.
“So good to have you back over.”
“I’m glad we’re having a chance to reconnect.” Suddenly, Maggie’s phone vibrated. The caller ID read “Adam.” She pressed decline using her BCI.
“I love how much our girls love each other.” Parker nodded toward the second-story window, where they could see Hazel and Sophie cuddled up with the nanny.
“Me too.” Maggie’s phone vibrated. Adam, again. She declined.
“Do you need to get that?”
Maggie’s phone vibrated again. “Sorry. Maybe I should answer real quick.”
Maggie stepped away and picked up the phone. “Adam? Is everything OK?”
But Adam was sobbing too hard to answer.
His entire left side was broken. Two broken ribs. A broken arm. The accident wasn’t his fault. A drunk driver. He’d called Maggie because he had no one else. No partner. No person willing to rush to the ER for him. Plus, hadn’t he always been there for her? Yes, the timing was inconvenient, but Adam was family. Of course she’d go to the hospital and wait for him while he was in surgery.
And Sophie would be safe at Parker’s.
They’re already asleep upstairs; it’s no trouble at all, Parker had insisted when Maggie asked if Sophie could spend the night at the Stillwells’. Maggie realized she was putting Parker in a somewhat impossible position; Parker couldn’t say no to Maggie after Maggie explained that her best friend was in the emergency room. Still, Maggie worried it was an imposition; Parker had hesitated before agreeing, had mumbled about having a busy morning ahead, and then paused, as if to let Maggie rescind the request, but Maggie didn’t, and so Parker continued: But that’s why we have our nanny. Now, as Maggie sat in the hospital, a seed of anxiety blossomed in her mind. She didn’t really know the Stillwells, and Parker’s husband seemed a little … well, what, exactly? Unfriendly, sure. But not dangerous. The nanny will drop the girls off at school tomorrow morning, Parker had promised. Go take care of your friend.
Sophie and Hazel were late. Fifteen minutes late. Maggie suppressed rising panic and texted Parker. No response. But that made sense; Parker said she had a busy morning. Why hadn’t Maggie asked for the nanny’s number? Surely they were just stuck in traffic. But 15 minutes was all she could delay class. Parents and nannies were waiting for her to start the drop-off routine. She texted Parker again. Still nothing.
“Maggie, I’ve got a meeting to run to,” a mom insisted. “Are we starting?”
“We’re just waiting for Sophie and Hazel,” Maggie explained. The mother frowned. Maggie stepped away. Called Parker. Straight to voicemail. Adrenaline pounded at Maggie’s temples. Where was her daughter?
Suddenly, Sophie walked into Seedlings. Followed by Amanda.
Maggie rushed to her daughter. “Sweetie, you’re so late. What happened?”
“Maggie, let’s get the day started,” Amanda interrupted, anxiously eyeing impatient guardians.
“But where’s Hazel?”
“I don’t know,” Amanda said. “Parker’s nanny dropped off Sophie alone.”
“Sorry …” Maggie wilted under Amanda’s angry stare. “I’ve gotta start class.”
“Yes, you do,” Amanda said. “We’ll talk about this later.”
But that conversation never happened. Because soon a much bigger problem consumed everyone’s attention. The headlines were everywhere by 1 p.m. Concerned parents began to show up around 1:30, taking their children home early. The classroom was empty within an hour. Maggie saw no point in keeping Seedlings open for herself and Sophie. She wanted to run home like everyone else. The incident was terrifying, a reminder of the fragility of family.
Hazel and her father had been found dead.
Investigators were releasing no further details.
Parker wasn’t picking up her fucking phone. Maggie had called countless times since ending class.
Sophie had been silent all day. First, she’d refused to participate in playtime with the other kids. Now she refused to talk to Maggie, even in the privacy of their own car. Maggie clenched the wheel. Something must have happened last night. What did Sophie know?
“Can you tell Mommy about your sleepover?” Sophie just looked down, bounced her shoes against the car seat. “Please talk to Mommy.” Sophie shook her head. That was all Maggie could take. She pulled over. “Sophie. I am not moving this car until you tell me about your sleepover.” Sophie burst into tears. Maggie took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.” She turned, tenderly stroked her daughter’s leg. “I love you. Which is why I wanna know what happened last night.”
Sophie hiccuped. Wiped her tears. “Movie.”
“You watched a movie?”
“Then what, sweetie?”
“We go night night.”
“And what about in the morning?”
“… Hazel daddy yells.”
Adrenaline coursed through Maggie’s system. “Did he yell at you?”
Sophie shook her head. “He yell at Hazel’s mommy.”
“Why did he yell at Hazel’s mommy?”
“Hazel go doctor.”
“He was mad about Hazel going to the doctor?”
“Hazel go doctor. Like you, Mommy.”
“What do you mean, like me?”
A sick feeling brewed in Maggie’s gut. Before she could press Sophie for more details, the phone rang. Why did Maggie know it would be Amanda? She didn’t want to pick up. She didn’t pick up. But suddenly, somehow, Amanda’s voice filled the car. “Maggie, where are you?”
“You and Reid were both in meetings; I couldn’t reach you. I ended school early because—”
“We need to talk.”
“Seedlings is going on hiatus,” Reid said. “We saw no other option, in the face of this horrific tragedy.”
“But, not to worry, your contract will be paid out. The rest of your salary for the year has been deposited to your account,” Amanda explained. “We’re issuing a statement expressing our shock and sympathy for Parker’s family.”
“Do …” Maggie paused. Amanda and Reid stared at her, stone-faced. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
“This news is just as shocking to us as it is to you,” Reid insisted.
“Do you know something, Maggie?”
“Good. This is a sensitive time for those of us who know Parker. We don’t anticipate any problems with the police. But we want you to know we have your back, Maggie. Our full legal team is at your disposal. If anyone in law enforcement approaches you, come straight to us. You want us to protect you, right?”
What Maggie really wanted was to rush into the next room, grab Sophie from the nanny, and run. “Yes.”
“Good. Now, there’s one last favor we must ask,” Amanda said.
“We need you to come to Palo Alto with us.” Amanda picked at a piece of lint on her skirt.
“Wait, what? When?” Maggie felt nauseated.
“Right now. We’re taking the private jet,” Reid explained. “I have some last-minute meetings.”
“But … why do you need me?”
“To watch Cloud,” Amanda insisted. “It’s gonna be a hectic trip.”
“But … your nannies …”
“It’s such short notice—they were all busy.”
“I have Sophie, though.”
“Oh, she’ll come too.”
“And a friend in the hospital—”
“You’ll be back in no time. Please. We need you, Maggie.” Amanda smiled. “And we’ve already paid you for the rest of the year. Surely you can make Palo Alto work for a couple days.”
They had not anticipated this. The experiments had been successful. Thirty-four happy, healthy baby monkeys were currently hopping around a Palo Alto lab with chips in their goddamn brains. The primate testing was conclusive: BrainTrust BCIs were safe for children. All the researchers had assured Amanda of this fact (or, at least, all the researchers who’d survived Reid’s rageful firing spree of anyone unwilling to accept his project’s expedited timeline). And now this tragedy. Hazel was supposed to have been their golden child: the youngest human ever to receive a nonmedical invasive BCI. If BCIs could be installed not only in teachers but also in students, there was no limit to how far BrainTrust could accelerate and revolutionize learning. Also, no limit to how high they could drive BrainTrust’s valuation. The only way to dominate the market was to prove they had what no other company had: children. BrainTrust was, of course, mining BCI users for massive amounts of lucrative BodyData. If BrainTrust could persuade parents to install BCIs in their preschoolers and newborns, it could mine children for BodyData from birth.
But there were regulatory hurdles. The state Legislature had set the minimum age for nonmedical BCI implantation at 21. That’s why Reid was Parker Stillwell’s primary donor, funneling millions into her campaign—he wanted the next governor to adopt a more “enlightened” view on the benefits of BCIs for children and their education. Hazel was supposed to have been the potential governor’s proof to California families that commercial BCIs were safe for kids. No one expected Hazel to die on the operating table 10 minutes into what was supposed to be a painless, straightforward procedure. Parker had collapsed in the operating room. Sobbed on the floor. Gary held her, in shock. The doctor brought the couple to a private room where they could collect themselves. Gary became a problem. Started screaming about dragging BrainTrust through a public trial that would destroy the company, destroy Amanda and Reid. Then, he stormed out.
Seedlings is your company, Reid had yelled at Amanda that morning, conveniently relinquishing control now that there was a crisis. You need to handle this. She contracted Dark Metal to intimidate the doctor who’d overseen the procedure, not that it took much to silence him. He was happy to avoid a medical malpractice nightmare. But Gary. Gary was the problem.
Dark Metal took care of him too.
Kidnapping and murder-suicide. A mentally unstable husband, threatened by his wife’s power, driven to unthinkable ends. That was the story the press was running with. Parker was playing along, too obliterated by trauma to put up a fight. Parker’s PR team painted her as the grieving mother. Potentially good for the campaign, even. Provided the truth didn’t come out. Not that Amanda herself knew the truth. All she technically knew was that she’d asked Dark Metal to handle the situation. Nothing else. Maybe Gary really had killed himself. Except every time she entertained this delusion, an inconvenient fact stopped her: A bullet had been shot through Hazel’s skull. Right where the BrainTrust BCI had been.
Then there was Maggie Everett’s kid. Why, oh why, did Sophie have to sleep over at the Stillwells’ house the night before Hazel’s surgery? Amanda had discouraged Parker and Maggie from pursuing a friendship because Reid had been worried about a scandalous affair ruining Parker’s campaign; the couple never dreamed that, even worse, this personal relationship would lead to the destruction of BrainTrust, Seedlings, and their entire lives.
How much did Sophie know? Hard to tell. Thankfully, Phase 2 of surveillance had been launched; now that spyware had been installed in Maggie’s BCI, they could monitor Maggie without limit. That afternoon, Amanda had utilized the BCI spyware to hijack the attention-sensing interface in Maggie’s car and listen in on Maggie and Sophie’s conversation. Sophie mentioned Hazel’s surgery, so clearly Sophie knew something, which is why they were all currently sitting on Reid’s private plane, with Reid fuming and Sophie playing with Cloud and Maggie looking increasingly panicked, wondering what the fuck she was doing on this flight.
Amanda wondered the same thing. She had no idea what to do with Maggie. Only that they couldn’t let her out of their sight. That her daughter may be a liability. And so, they were flying to Palo Alto. They’d figure out what to do with Maggie when they got there. With any luck, she’d come to accept the version of events being reported on the news.
They deplaned. Stepped onto the tarmac. Two SUVs pulled up. Adrenaline rushed through Maggie’s system. She didn’t need all the pieces to understand that she and her daughter were in danger. The roar of another aircraft sounded overhead. Maggie whispered in Sophie’s ear: “When Mommy says run, you run.”
They rode in silence. Maggie tried to breathe normally. Failed. Oxygen came in short, panicked gulps. It had been miles since they’d seen another house. Maggie and Sophie were in an SUV with Amanda. They followed the second car, which carried Reid and Cloud. Their small motorcade climbed rolling green hills. Finally, they pulled up to a massive iron gate. The barrier parted. The cars drove inside.
“We’re here!” Amanda announced with forced cheer as they pulled up to a massive modernist home; it looked like a collection of glass boxes stacked atop one another, set on a forested cliffside. “Are you excited for a vacation with Mommy?” Amanda asked Sophie, who didn’t respond, just stared at the ground.
Maggie’s heart felt like a bomb. “I think she’s tired from the trip.”
“Well, let’s get you inside. We’ve got a comfy bed for naptime!”
Amanda got out of the car first. She went to greet Reid and Cloud, who’d disembarked from the car in front. Maggie stepped out onto the gravel drive. Helped Sophie down.
She looked back at the gate. It was still open.
“Run,” she whispered to her daughter. “Run.”
The gate began to close. Slowly. But they would make it. They had to. Maggie grabbed her child. Hauled Sophie into her arms. Adrenaline gave her superhuman strength. “Maggie, stop!” Reid shouted. But Maggie just pumped her legs harder.
She cleared the gate.
It shut behind her.
She dropped Sophie onto the ground. Scanned her surroundings. They’d hide in the forest. She grabbed Sophie’s hand. “Follow me.”
But before she could take even one step, a familiar feeling overwhelmed her.
She convulsed. Fell to the ground. The last thing she saw was the gate parting, Reid emerging. The last things she heard were her daughter’s screams.
She woke up in a lush, king-size bed. She turned to the left. A massive picture window revealed a stunning view of the estate’s private golf course, bordered by dense woodlands.
A gentle knock at the door.
“Come … come in?” Maggie croaked; her throat was parched.
Amanda entered. Sat on the edge of the mattress. “How are you feeling, sweetheart?”
“I … had a seizure.”
“You’re lucky Reid followed you out.”
“But … I thought … my BCI …”
“… controlled seizures through electrical stimulation? Yes, it does.”
“Then why did I have a seizure?”
“Isn’t this estate beautiful?” Amanda gestured to the stunning view, ignoring Maggie’s question.
Maggie suppressed the bile rising in her throat. Amanda had somehow engineered her seizure, had somehow hacked into her BCI. Maggie was sure of it. “But—”
“We were thinking you and Sophie could stay longer than just a few days. You need time to recover.”
“I think … I should go … see a doctor.”
“I agree, Maggie, and we’re going to see to it that you receive the finest care right here in the comfort of our home. We’ll cover all expenses. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
Maggie ripped off the blankets. Stood from her bed. “I want to leave.”
“I don’t think that would be wise.” Amanda’s tone sharpened. “We wouldn’t want you to have another seizure. That could be dangerous. Even life-threatening.”
Panic turned Maggie’s legs to lead. She sat back on the mattress.
“That’s more like it. Stay in bed. Rest up,” Amanda said as she walked out of the room. “We’ll be right outside if you need anything.”
Amanda didn’t bother to lock the door behind her.
Maggie had nowhere to go.
Read a response essay by a neuroscience researcher.
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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.