Shining Path


Chapter 1

If you make it out the door of the Shining Path Academy, the cops will bring you back, and the AI will punish you. There's a window in every classroom, and in Summer they even keep the window open. If you look out the window and make a run plan, the iris trackers will detect it, and the AI will punish you for that, too. Even if you don't look out the window, you can lose points for thinking about the window too much; the AI will know, somehow. It is smarter than you.

For thinking and looking, you just lose points, or a level in an extreme case. If you actually succeed in exiting the classroom without permission, let alone reaching the ground outside the school building, then losing points isn't all of it: you also have to make a speech to your class about what you did and how they caught you. You also have to apologize to your Level Seven classmates who will lose points with you for having failed to keep you on the Shining Path. In that speech is one of the only times you're ever allowed to speak to classmates outside your own circle at all. The idea is that hearing the speeches, everyone will realize that no matter what you do to run, they'll catch you one way or another, and so it's not worth it and everyone will be less likely to make the attempt themselves. Hearing it from the unsuccessful runners is supposed to be more convincing than hearing it from the AI.

Of course, the ones who die on the electric fence cannot speak for themselves, but not many make it that far and you get to watch the video when it happens, and that is supposed to have much the same effect. The AI with its theory-of-mind agent was wise enough to formulate this policy, with a little help from the Principal and a few calls to Wing-FabAI Technical Support, but it was not smart enough to foresee some of the consequences of the policy, consequences that an experienced human administrator might have been able to predict.

Wun Wun Siks, Level Three, 29 points, counted everything. She had a tattoo of the numeral 2 on her left shoulder; it looked homemade, but she didn't remember whether she had made it herself, nor what it had meant when she got it. Now she thought it might be to remind her to count things – because it was two, you know; anyone can be one but to get to two it's one more, you have to remember to count. She counted the speeches she'd heard from unsuccessful escapees (thirteen) and the times she watched the video (four). She counted her classmates who graduated from Level Eight (41) and those who were transferred out to other classes (three). That made a total of 61 students leaving her class from all causes, nearly matching the 63 who joined (not counting herself), since she started counting. She had started counting these things 1,796 days ago, which is nearly five years; but she was no longer sure exactly why she had started counting nor what had happened before that. In fact she was an unusually difficult student. Normally you graduate in much less than five years.

After Wun Wun Siks exhausted the possibilities of counting floor tiles, desks in the classroom, her own punishments, and everything else outside herself like that, she started counting her heartbeats. Her heart beat faster or slower at different times, so it wasn't a good way of measuring time at first, but by careful experiment she found she could match it against her breathing and keep a steady, even rhythm. The AI and its biometric wristband actually helped with that – if she thought too much about boys or running or a few other things she'd get the tone that meant she was losing a point, or sometimes it would just skip ahead to the electric shock, and either way that meant her heart had been beating faster. She learned to slow it down, and she learned how her body felt when her heart was too slow (which would earn her a visit to the infirmary and more lost points if she kept her heart slow for too long). Wun Wun Siks became skilled enough that she could count heartbeats through an entire class session, morning or afternoon, and get nearly the same count every time: 25,500, give or take a hundred or so.

She didn't mind losing the points for these experiments because she could earn them back at any time by just being good for a while and giving the right answers in her interviews, and points were just one more thing to count anyway. If she only counted numbers as fast as possible, she was sure she would never run out. There was no limit to numbers, so in the same way, there would be no limit to the days she could spend experimenting.

Three times since she started counting, Wun Wun Siks had experimented at night, too. She kept herself awake all night to find out how long a night actually was. Whenever she started to fall asleep, she would put her hand between her legs, at which point the AI (itself in sleep mode during the night, and not evaluating the situation as carefully as maybe it should have) would help her stay awake with a heavy shock from her wristband, since it could not give her a warning tone without waking the others. It wasn't easy to keep awake like that and maintain a steady heart rate at the same time, but she had nothing more interesting to do.

The first night that Wun Wun Siks stayed awake from lights-out until lights-on, her heart beat 41,021 times in that period. It cost her 86 points, taking her from Level Three down to Level One, but she got back to Level Three in just fourteen days (a school-wide all-time record, though she did not know it) and tried again. On the second and third attempts, her counts were 39,372 and 39,348. That was enough to satisfy her curiosity, and she stopped experimenting and decided to earn points for a while and see if she could make it to Level Four.

Tree Niner Niner, Level Three, had put his run plan into action 33 days ago. As he explained in his speech afterward, he had swallowed as much water as he could during his morning shower, so that his bladder would be full by mid-morning. The wristband can detect that, not directly but a reasonable guess based on galvanic skin response and a few other things. He waited until he could plausibly claim that his need would not wait any longer, then he crossed his legs. You're not allowed to cross your legs or take bathroom breaks during class in Level Three; but under the circumstances, based on the wristband data, the AI took off a few points and allowed him a break anyway.

Once in the bathroom – because in Level Three you are allowed to be alone in the bathroom, the cop stands outside the door and leaves it to the cameras to make sure you'll be good – he simply took off his wristband, pushed the window open, and jumped out. It was about four meters' drop from the second floor, and he twisted his ankle landing, but not badly enough for it to stop him.

The external surveillance cameras spotted Tree Niner Niner before he even hit the ground, and the three nearest painball guns locked onto him as he picked himself up and headed for the fence. When he crossed an invisible line fifteen meters away from the building, the guns started firing. Painball filling takes a fraction of a second to soak into your skin, so at first he just felt something like a repeated slap on the back of his neck, or even a sensation like popping a zit, something you almost could enjoy.

But then the pain hit. Tree Niner Niner was a big, strong young man before he came to Shining Path and stopped exercising, so he managed to take two more steps before falling forward screaming. He broke his nose and one of his front teeth, and the cops took their time dragging him back to the infirmary. He had to give his speech, which sounded funny with the air whistling past his broken tooth – though nobody laughed, of course – and he lost enough points to set him back to Level Two.

Painball ammunition is tricky stuff. Handheld rifles are slightly less finicky, but an automated gun that might have to fire at any moment must store its ammunition at a constant 10 degrees. Any less, and the polyethylene glycol solvent will get too thick; any more, and the neovanilloid active ingredients will decompose. So the guns have to be refrigerated in Summer and heated in Winter, and even at that they need to be cleaned frequently. The painball system at Shining Path Academy went down for thirty minutes every morning starting at 3:30 for a self-cleaning cycle. You would think they could take the even-numbered guns down first, and then when those came back up do the odd-numbered ones, or something like that, so that the entire system wouldn't have to go down all at once; but that was not what they did. They took the whole system offline all at once. When the painball guns went down, there was no need to operate the camera system used for targeting them, so the AI used that time to do recalibration on the cameras, too.

Wun Wun Siks did not know the details of how the painball system worked. But she did know that all three of the times she stayed awake through the night, there was a time from about 27,000 to 29,000 heartbeats after lights-out during which she heard a lot of mechanical noises coming from outside. Some of those noises had sounded a lot like the imitations of the painball guns that Tree Niner Niner gave during his speech. She reasonably guessed that security systems require maintenance, guns need to be cleaned and test-fired, and AIs need something like sleep themselves, and she made a run plan of her own. Now, on the night following the 1,796th day of her count and the 33rd day since Tree Niner Niner's failed attempt at running, Wun Wun Siks ran.

She counted 27,500 heartbeats after lights-out, by which time she could definitely hear something security-related going on outside, and then she pressed the button on her wristband. The wristband gave her a small electric shock. Some of the others in her circle said that you could reduce your punishments for unavoidable minor infractions if you pressed the button to ask for a shock in advance, because self-discipline is one of the steps on the Path; Wun Wun Siks had not done the experiments to test that, and she had her doubts, but it was worth a try. It might reassure the AI that she was a good girl, and give her a little extra time.

She rolled over in her bed, crawled to the ladder, and made her way down to the floor. She tried to be quiet and avoid waking Too Fower Tree, whose bunk was below, or any of the others. She crept to the door, pushed it open, and walked carefully down the hall to the bathroom. She was given another shock, but the AI had determined that it was a simple toilet break, and Wun Wun Siks was showing respect for the cops (because respect is very important) by not waking them for her own comfort, and so it let her continue.

Too Fower Tree was wide awake, lying quietly in the bunk below, and she heard Wun Wun Siks leave. She, unlike the AI, guessed that this was no ordinary late-night bathroom break. Her friend would not be coming back, and her own heart raced. She received several shocks in rapid succession for that, the AI making reasonable inferences from her elevated heartbeat and GSR and her irregular breathing, even though her hands had remained carefully at her sides where a good girl keeps them.

In the bathroom, Wun Wun Siks did as Tree Niner Niner had done 33 days before. She used the toilet normally, to reassure the AI that nothing was amiss, and then she removed her wristband. She wasted two heartbeats to shoot it, as a girl shoots an elastic band, into the farthest corner of the room. Then she pushed the window open and jumped down to the ground. The AI had not learned from its mistake with Tree Niner Niner, because from its point of view there had been no mistake with Tree Niner Niner. The boy was easily caught and appropriately disciplined – ne? – and the whole thing was just another step on the Shining Path for him and his classmates. So there had been no cause to do anything to prevent another student, like Wun Wun Siks, from making and following the same run plan if she needed to learn the same lesson.

Wun Wun Siks landed gracefully at the side of the building, and the floodlights snapped on, dazzlingly bright. That frightened her, but they were on local intelligence – the central AI was not fully alert yet. She ran. Nothing happened when she crossed the fifteen-meter line; the painball guns were all busy self-cleaning, and they could not have targeted her anyway because the targeting cameras were shut down for recalibration. In a control room in the East wing of the school, the duty cop saw the floodlights through the window and knew something was happening. She tried to follow her procedure. But with the painball system down and the AI in sleep mode, all she could do was check the regular surveillance cameras, by hand one at a time. It would take almost a hundred heartbeats just to find the right channel.

Wun Wun Siks sprinted across the exercise yard, the electric fence growing until it occupied all of her final vision. She reached out her arms to accept its fiery embrace, throwing herself forward with her heartbeat counting and all her other counting forgotten and ended, all numbers passing infinity and back to zero – throwing herself ecstatically into the dead, cold chain link.

The electric fence was not electric. In fact, it couldn't possibly be – it was aluminum and steel all the way into the ground with no insulators and no connection to any kind of power supply. Wun Wun Siks had never really learned about electricity except how it felt on her wrist, because she had spent her entire high school career on the Shining Path to obedience. She had believed in that fence. Even though she would have said she didn't believe a word of what the AI told her, she had believed in the fence. She had believed that touching the fence would be the end of all her counting.

Now she stood at the edge of the schoolyard, her fingers in the chain link of the fence, feeling an unfamiliar emotion that could be joy or relief or disappointment or awe, wondering what would happen next. Behind her, at the school building, she could hear an alarm go off. The painball guns would be offline for another thousand heartbeats at least, but with the alarm blaring the cops would show up faster. She stared through the fence and through the diaphanous PET-film RF shield that hung down on the outside. Into the dark and deep woods. No knowing how far those lovely trees went, or what might be on the other side. Maybe she'd be killed out there anyway, maybe more slowly and painfully than if the fence had lived up to its promise. There were pictures in her head, sometimes when she slept especially, of a time and place where "school" and "prison" were two different words with two different meanings, and there were no points or levels, but even though they won't make you stop imagining such things entirely until Level Six, Wun Wun Siks already had serious doubts about the existence of the next world. Maybe those trees just continued forever and there was nothing but the Shining Path. Maybe students who graduated or transferred out came back again with new faces to learn their lessons again forever.

Maybe she'd better forget about running, like you will in Level Six. Wun Wun Siks had never been past Level Four herself, and even that only because of an AI lapse and only for a few days, because of her habit of counting everything. Maybe if she studied really hard she could learn humility and overcome her nature. But there was no stepping back onto the Shining Path, not now. She'd be back to Level Zero indefinitely after this infraction. She had to end it all right here. And Wun Wun Siks had promises to keep. She stretched muscles that hadn't been properly used in five years, and she began to climb.

She was halfway up the ten-meter fence already before the cops got enough of their systems up for a good fix on her location. They didn't know how to abort the automated gun cleaning cycle or bring up the targeting cameras, if that were even possible, but they ran out the nearest fire exit of the building with handheld painball rifles, got close enough to feel unwarranted confidence about their accuracy, and opened fire.

Wun Wun Siks was lucky to be a girl, because her school-issue nightdress covered a lot more skin than a boy's pajamas would have, and it protected her. Most of the painballs bounced right off, because the cops were poorly trained on their rifles and had set the threshold velocity to maximum in the false belief that they were adjusting the pain level. But a painball caught Wun Wun Siks on the sole of her right foot, and that made climbing much more difficult, and then a cop who was a little smarter than the rest thought to run all the way up to the base of the fence and shoot straight up, under the folds of Wun Wun Siks's nightdress. She got within a meter or so of the top of the fence, but that was as far as she got. The neovanilloids soaked through her dress and irresistible burning pain consumed most of her lower body; her feet slipped from the links of the fence as her muscles refused to obey her brain; her fingers detached, and she fell badly, onto the hard ground inside the fence.

Wun Wun Siks struck her head on a rock, 28,421 heartbeats after lights-out on the 1,796th day since she started counting, and she died instantly from the mechanical shock to her brain. In her entire life she had never reached Level Five of the Shining Path, but her face in death had the blissful thousand-meter stare of a Level Five student. The cops didn't try to close the eyes, but they picked up the corpse and carried it back to the school building. A short time later her parents (who were named Gotou) would receive 51% of the ashes of one human body that might have been that of their daughter Suzue, and a sincere letter written by the Shining Path AI and sealed by the Chair of the Board of Governors, apologizing for the school's failure to prevent her death by methamphetamine overdose on 13-day 4-month, Shoumei 18. She had been 19 years of age.

Too Fower Tree, Level Four, 375 points, cried freely when she watched the video of Wun Wun Siks touching the fence and dying by electrocution. She lost a total of eighteen points for disrupting the class and failing to respect her fellow students in that way – though most other members of her circle cried too, even the boys. Students from other circles were better about it.