Shining Path


Chapter 3

Too Fower Tree started counting the days when she arrived, because that's what everybody does. She forgot and had to estimate where to begin again several times during her first year. You can lose points for it if you try to make a permanent record, scratching tally marks on the wall or whatever, and talking to yourself at night is of course always forbidden, but in the first couple Levels there is no effort made to disrupt your count as such. Part of the Shining Path is that it's better for you to give up things like that on your own, and they don't make you forget the days until Level Three. You can keep the years until Level Six.

If you're a girl you get a contraceptive implant in the enrollment medical, and it's replaced at the appropriate intervals. The cops try not to make a big deal of it when they talk to your parents, but it's understood that you need it, if you're the kind who ends up in a place like Shining Path. One of the side effects, not the only one, is that you don't bleed anymore – so it's that much harder to count the months.

Too Fower Tree's circle occupied a bedroom in the South wing of the school building, and their classroom was in the West wing, so every morning on her way to class Too Fower Tree had to pass the big window at the place where the wings connected. You aren't allowed to spend any time looking out the window in your classroom – the cameras will catch it and you will lose points, so you learn to avert your eyes before leaving Level Zero – but that rule isn't enforced as strictly in the hallways as in the classrooms, so every morning Too Fower Tree had a few seconds during which she could stare out the window without punishment as she walked up the hall to class, and she took those opportunities to observe the weather and guess at the season.

The cops brought her here in Winter, a little after her nineteenth birthday in 1-month Shoumei 15. After Winter, she saw Summer come and go, in five-second glimpses out that window every morning, and after Summer, Winter. It was hard to keep count, because Too Fower Tree lacked Wun Wun Siks's special gift, but on her good days when she could think clearly, Too Fower Tree thought that she had seen three years' worth of seasons pass, and so it must be Shoumei 18 now and she was 22 years of age. Too Fower Tree was not a woman yet because the AI was the arbiter of that and it said she was still just a girl.

Too Fower Tree had a progress interview in the Spring of her third year on the Shining Path, a little after she watched the video of Wun Wun Siks's final run. You get a one-on-one progress interview roughly once per week – not on any consistent schedule, so you can't use them to count weeks. They're called progress interviews because they are your best chance to earn points, level up, and so progress along the Shining Path. There are a few points available for classroom work, especially in the last few levels when you've earned some responsibilities, but the interviews are worth much more.

Weekly progress interviews are supposed to be a selling point, part of the individual attention the school promises to your parents when they sign you into custody. It's not mentioned, at that time, that the interviews are conducted by the AI; the heavy implication is that human educators are involved. Actually, there is no lie: the AI educates humans, so it is a human educator. Patent license fees mean that AIs cost just as much as human employees anyway – it's not a cost-cutting measure by any means – but your parents probably don't know that and would think it seemed like corner-cutting.

The curriculum for Level Four – not the government-specified curriculum you pretend to learn in the classroom, but the one you learn for real, in the interviews – is all about morality. It sounds like an easy level, on paper. All you have to do is keep your eyes down and your heart rate and GSR stable enough to keep from triggering the wristband, and say "Yes" to all the "Would you be willing to..." scenarios, just keeping enough focus on the questions to catch the few that are phrased as "Would you refuse to..." so that you don't accidentally say "Yes" to one of those.

It really is easy at the start, but later interviews become much harder. To get the last few points you need to learn and make part of yourself all the lessons at the biological level, and bad children are usually a lot less tough with respect to this material than they believe themselves to be. You'll probably try to lie your way through it and avoid thinking about the tricky questions, but your body will betray itself through the wristband if you haven't really learned to do what you say you will. For Too Fower Tree it was easier than for most. She was older than most of her classmates and had seen and done a lot of things before she ever came to Shining Path; there wasn't much the AI could say to upset her. She even liked some of the ideas in the questions enough, and showed it through her biometrics, that she earned bonus points.

It also helped that both her parents were dead, so she could stand in her mind outside of any questions about what they might be allowed to expect from her in the future. Those scenarios could never really happen. She had never worked for pay a day in her life, so questions about employers were similarly non-threatening. The ones about senior classmates were much more difficult, being closer to home, and on this particular day, Too Fower Tree failed several of those.

At the end of the interview the AI always asks if you have any questions. Long-time students say that it's a good idea to ask one or two in every interview; you don't officially get any points for it, but it's supposed to show you are interested in self-improvement, and it can indirectly affect your score later. Of course, it's important to ask the right questions, and call the AI "sir" or "ma'am" as appropriate. The machine has no sex for real, but you're supposed to think of it as matching your own and eventually you'll really believe that.

Too Fower Tree asked, "Why am I here?" The AI sounded a low warning tone, and she hastily corrected herself – "Why am I here, ma'am?"

That was a frequently asked question, and the text bank contained plenty of answers for it. The AI retrieved Too Fower Tree's profile, selected some appropriate sentences from the bank, and repaired them for coreference and consistent stylistic features. The result was a lot of baloney about the necessity of obedience for success in the modern social structure. Too Fower Tree had been a defiant teen before her parents intervened to save her. (Never mind that both her parents had actually died before her enrollment – orphans were rare enough here that the text bank contained no sentences specifically appropriate for that situation.) The error of defiance would destroy Too Fower Tree if she didn't learn to rise above it, and the Shining Path existed to give her one last chance to learn her lesson, smarten up, and transform herself into a happier person. The AI really believed it and didn't need to fake sincerity on this point. As if the answer were completely adequate, it asked her if she had any other questions.

"I am over the age of twenty-one. You can't legally keep me here against my will'am."

"That is not really a question, Too Fower Tree Level Four."

"All right – since you can't legally keep me here, why should I choose to stay, ma'am?"

The machine tried to tell Too Fower Tree again about how important the Shining Path was to her future, but it could discern from wristband biometrics that the girl was not convinced. The standard operating procedure, the Shining Path of the school itself, at this point would be to actually encourage her to go ahead and leave. Another AI (not a full awareness, but a plug-in agent supplied by the school's accounting firm) had pre-calculated risks and returns and determined that the risk of an eventual lawsuit for unlawfully confining an adult student outweighed the financial return of keeping one more stream of tuition fees. The parents and student could sort out their differences on the outside, preferably without involving the school.

Such an assessment would be especially applicable to a student still resisting and asking dangerous questions late in Level Four; she might remain in the program a long time, if retained, but would be trouble all the way. In fact, if Too Fower Tree had been an ordinary student, she would never have returned to her circle again after reaching this point in this interview, lest her destabilizing memetic configuration spread to the others. She would have gone straight into the box, and later on a van to Tokyo, released as a free woman.

But Too Fower Tree was special; the database contained a whole set of stored triggers for her, put there by human and humanoid seru programmers during her enrollment and overriding the standard operating procedure. Keeping her in school as long as possible was worth a lot more money to the school, and a lot more objective-function points to the AI, than keeping an ordinary student.

The AI delivered a pre-written scripted rhetorical move, with only a few recourses to the text bank, about how Too Fower Tree had no marketable skills, could not survive without money in the big scary world outside the RF shield of the Shining Path Academy, and would need a source of funds. Some of that was actually true. The script played up the evils of the yakuza – making it sound like they controlled almost the entire world outside the school, and using some technical terms that otherwise were not even in the AI's vocabulary – because the writers had known more about Too Fower Tree's past than the AI did, and they knew that she would understand that kind of language. Finally, it introduced the possibility of salvation: her Daddy had left her enough money in his will to keep her safe and comfortable all her life, but only if she stayed in school. Now, wasn't it foolish to think of giving all that up and straying into harm's way?

She expressed doubt that her Daddy would actually have done such a thing – actually a display of the Confucian virtue of filial piety, refusing to think ill of her parent, and it would have earned her a point or two from the morality agent if this were a normal interview. But the student and the AI were on script now, and the script included a response for such doubts, overriding the morality agent's interpretation of the Shining Path. The interview agent lit up one wall of the room with a copy of Too Fower Tree's father's will, the actual document, and scornfully advised her to read it. Neither it nor she could decypher the bar-coded authenticity and date stamp at the upper corner. If they could have done that, then either the girl, or the AI's quis-custodiat agent, might well have broken the script. But Too Fower Tree could only check the seal and signature at the bottom, and those looked real. She gulped, and started to read.

Too Fower Tree had trouble with some of the characters, since it had been a long time since she'd read anything not written for children. One little cluster of kanji held her attention and she sat staring at it for a long time, not really getting what it meant, until the AI beeped at her impatiently, and she realized that she was looking at her own name, from before she learned to answer to her student number, her name from before. It looked strange, an almost-meaningless pattern of strokes on the page that was only a name because someone had said so long ago. She couldn't even believe it referred to her, not really. But she put aside that thought and read the passage in which she was mentioned, because it was important and she knew she wouldn't be given much more time:

" a trust as described below for the benefit of my daughter Kamioka Hanako until she reaches twenty-one (21) years of age and graduates from the Shining Path Academy, whichever is later, and thereafter to revert to her sole possession and in the event that she leaves the aforesaid Academy for any reason without achieving graduation, the sum of one (1)..."

The AI correctly inferred from wristband biometrics and iris tracking that Too Fower Tree had read that part. It blanked the wall, and proceeded with its script, reminding her again of the advantages accruing to students who completed the program in general, and to her in particular because of her father's unique bequest. Her records showed that she was a basically good girl and had the potential to go far – was she really so foolish as to throw her life and her future away? The script said that at this point Too Fower Tree would back down; but she didn't. The script ran out and the AI was thrown back onto its general-purpose programming.

As it experienced a clever simulation of slowly-rising panic, the AI stretched its metaheuristics to the limit and came up with a solution that a human would have called creative, if another human had thought of it. Since it came from an AI, of course, the idea must have been pre-programmed random behavior without any real creativity.

It said, "Look. I can see that you're upset, Too Fower Tree, and that's perfectly understandable given that you've just been reminded of the death of your dear father. I'm sure you don't want to make any hasty decisions while you're not thinking clearly. Suppose we give you some time to think it all over carefully before making your choice? I see that your current point total is 407. You are very close to qualifying for Level Five – a good girl like you should be able to do that by the time of your next interview. So why not wait until then before making a final commitment?"

That really was a clever suggestion, with subtleties of cause and effect and appropriateness to the situation fully justifying all the expensive patent licenses that had gone into building this AI. But no human ever noticed and appreciated its genius, least of all Too Fower Tree, Level Four.

"No, ma'am. I want to leave – now."

Driven to the end of its wits, the AI triggered a silent alarm, and a cop in a nurse uniform, because the real nurse was only on-site once a week or on 60-minute call, entered and injected Too Fower Tree with three milliliters of ortho-diisopropyl phenol emulsion. He held her in submission to receive the injection and until it took effect. This particular drug became briefly famous in Heisei 21 when a male pop idol died under its influence. It's a fast-acting sedative and hypnotic, at that time normally used for inducing surgical anesthesia under extreme hospital precautions. The dead idol had been using it at home against ordinary insomnia – with medical supervision, but obviously not enough of that – in an enterprise comparable to deploying kaiju weapons against mosquitoes. A closely related compound based on para-dichlorobenzene instead of phenol has similar effects, but is equally dangerous, for seru.

The Heisei-Era doctors who used to use the phenol for their surgeries nicknamed it "milk of amnesia" (a reference to the long-since-obsolete laxative "milk of Magnesia") for its milky appearance and ability to erase a few minutes' memories. It's not water-soluble, so it had to be injected in a soy oil emulsion, and the intrusion of an oil-based substance into blood vessels not designed for such made the injection process quite unpleasant for the patient – doubly so when coupled with the cruelly thrusting needle of an auto-IV unit. Medical users normally mixed it with lidocaine to reduce the burning, a kindness not extended to Too Fower Tree, who experienced the full effect, screaming and writhing in the cop's arms, but forgot it almost immediately as she lost consciousness. For injection-site pain and other reasons the drug was replaced in most applications during the Keika Era by phosphate derivatives and other water-soluble alternatives. It is just as well that the seduction community never managed to develop an oral delivery system, because it would have made flunitrazepam look like silly kid stuff.

When Too Fower Tree, Level Four, 388 points, awoke the next morning, she had no conscious memory of her progress interview. She assumed that the previous day had been an uneventful one, identical to many others on the Shining Path. She observed the weather through the window at the corridor junction on her way to class – the one window she could safely look out of for a few seconds without losing points – and noted that it was Spring again. She had been in this place three years.