This was the first piece where I seriously incorporated AI into my process. It showed me that LLMs could illuminate subtle themes in my writing that I should be paying attention to. - JY
Trin waves her card across the sensors of the police station door. beep tzzz. She tightens her grip around the ziplock bag, the metal of Rio’s implant pressing into her skin through the thin plastic.
She swipes again. beep tzzz.
“Open up! I have the right to see my son,” she says.
Picketing Times Square without a Faraday mask. In broad daylight for god’s sake. That was the pinnacle of foolishness, even for Rio.
“Did you bring his implant?” the Voice booms from that intimate space behind the bridge of her nose.
“Yes. I have it.”
“Please use your inner voice to open the door,” the voice says. Lately, it’s become better at mimicking her internal monologue. Even her—a late bloomer who was silicon-free until her teenage years—has been tricked into thinking the Voice is her own inner monologue. It isn’t subtle now, though.
“This is a public building. I’m allowed the use of a physical ID,” she says.
“The policy has changed. You must use your implant to communicate,” the Voice says. Her scalp tingles as a chorus of voices of those in line chimes through her implant:
Hey, I don’t have all day, lady.
A physical card… haven’t seen that in a while. Are you new around here?
Stop wasting our time.
Come on, I don’t have all day.
“Fine,” she whispers. She needs to see her son. Hopefully, he isn’t hurt too bad this time.
She powers on the microscopic chip embedded in the Wernicke’s area right behind her ear lobes, that tiny sliver of the brain responsible for speech processing. She subvocalizes her password. The chip captures the minute electrical signals sent to the larynx and emits her ID to the door. She enters the sleek three-story structure–all glass, to remind everyone that human thoughts should be transparent.
A din of anxious chatter invades her thoughts, followed by the Voice:
“What is your relation to Rio Nguyen?” the Voice asks.
She dutifully subvocalizes: I am his mother. You were the one who alerted me in the first place, shouldn’t you know?
“Were you aware of your son’s plan to remove his implant in public?”
No. He doesn’t share his activist work with me.
“Please freely subvocalize your thoughts.”
She tenses, making sure not to let errant thoughts slip through to the chip.
He doesn’t trust me with his plans anymore. It’s good that it’s asking her this. It means the Voice doesn’t have enough to charge him.
“You are hiding something. Remember, you would not be here without my assistance.”
The Voice loves you.
The Voice is the ever-present AI that makes life efficient.
The Voice once saved her life. She was crossing 9th Ave when it warned her of a narcoleptic driver running a red. It reminds her of this every day.
“Were you aware that your son attempted to inject malware into people on the street?”
No. Oh god… what’s he done now?
“That is a felony.”
Am I free to pick up my son or not?
A metal tube snicks open from the wall. “Please drop his implant here,” the voice says. “We have installed a fresh one in him.”
An orderly marches Rio out of the holding area. His long hair reeks of Jager shots and stale weed. Blood-soaked bandages cover his neck. “Mom… I’m sorry.”
She fires eye daggers. “Malware? How could you be so stupid?”
“It wasn’t my idea, I swear. It was Kenji. By the time I knew, it was too late.”
“I don’t want to hear any excuses. If you entertain the company of foolish people, you, too, become a fool,” she says.
She hears voices in the waiting room murmuring through her implant:
Wow… such a terrible mom.
That guy stinks.
What a little brat.
Excuse me, but can you please try to keep it down?
She glares at clusters of people around her. Of course, they look away. Relying on the implant makes us all cowards when it comes to physical contact.
Then the Voice breaks in with an announcement: “Stand by for this month’s lotto winner. Lacy McDonald! You have the Global channel for five minutes.”
“This one goes out to my true love,” the chipper and over-earnest voice of Lacy says. The lotto winner begins an off-key rendition of Zombie by the Cranberries. Trin winces. What a waste of Global. Around her, people zone out, as most do when the lotto winner comes on the air. She counts to three, placing herself into a trance. She builds a barrier around the implant, shutting down its I/O. She notices Rio slowing his breath, too. At least he remembers how to filter out unwanted signals just as she taught him.
No lottery winner has ever had anything valuable to say anyway.
Rio has a crestfallen look on his face, a dark crease between his eyebrows. His lip tremors. Trin sighs and embraces her son, his lanky body crumpling into hers. “What did you think was going to happen?” she whispers.
“That I could make a difference. People don’t have to listen to the Voice if they don’t want to.”
“You can’t do that if you’re behind bars.”
“You’re lucky you have me,” Trin says, opening the heavy glass doors of the rehab center. Rio trails in behind her. “You have to take this seriously.”
It’s been a week since he got out.
“I am.” It takes all his energy to muster those two words.
“Did you do the exercises last night?”
“Don’t lie. You didn’t sleep again, did you? The Voice is closely watching you.” Luckily, Rio is only sentenced to a month of implant rehab. She’s glad they didn’t force him to upgrade to an even more intrusive version of the implant.
“I got it, Mom.”
“Do you want to get sent back to the cell?” She has to push now, for his sake, before other voices could influence him. She had let him drift unmoored for too long, turning a blind eye to his antics.
It will be a busy day today. 28 people on her schedule. She won’t have time to babysit Rio.
Rio grumbles and takes a seat at one of the creaking chairs. People drip into the room. An older gentleman who had taken his implant out when he became convinced he was allergic. A young waitress who had harbored a fake implant for years. A few eccentrics, strange symbols scrawled on the sleeve of their coats—they believed the Voice was able to predict the future. Most are groggy from the painkillers, at least, for the ones that attempted implant removal. They were easy to spot: look for the raised scars right behind their ears.
“Let’s start with the meditation exercises,” Trin says. “You may feel that the Voice is an interruption, but soon, you’ll realize that it becomes a new sense, something that you can work with.”
A young woman in the front row moaned. “It’s injecting poison into my brain.”
“It’ll always be an interruption,” Rio added.
“I’m here to make you strong enough to live with the Voice. If you don’t want to do that, then you’re welcome to sign up for any one of the other rehab centers in Brooklyn. Trust me, the others won’t be as lenient.” What she doesn’t say is that by using her techniques, they will be able to ignore the Voice. They will realize this soon enough.
Rio stays behind after the session. The late afternoon sun casts an orange hue across the patterned carpet. Ornate lines of a geometric design dance across it, fading into one another.
“I don’t understand why you stay in this job.”
“I’m good at it.”
“Working for the Voice?” he asks, shaking his head in disgust.
“Seal off your thoughts,” she said, pointing behind her ear.
Rio sighs, closes his eyes and slows his breathing. She does the same, erecting an expanse of white that blankets the neurons around the implant—an act as easy as yawning or blinking for her.
“We minimize the damage the Voice can do.”
“It still worms into my thoughts.”
“It has a benefit. By hardening yourself to the incessant chatter of the Voice, you become stronger.”
“Mom. The average person isn’t as strong-willed as you. They absorb it. And it makes them subservient. Don’t you see that what you’re doing here furthering the Voice’s cause?”
She lets out a seeping sigh. “It’s better to cope than to struggle with every breath.”
She hears the faint sound of the Voice, its high volume briefly breaking through her barrier: “A message from the Commission of Intervention, the Brooklyn Bridge repair will start in precisely one hour. Please make adjustments to your evening commute. In addition, we have the results for next month’s Lottery…_”
“I’ve decided. I need to take it out again. Even if it’s unsafe,” Rio says, scratching at his ears.
This is what she is afraid of. “You need to learn how to ignore the parts of the Voice. I can walk you through the deeper selective meditation exercise.”
“No,” he says, wandering over to a corner of the room and resting his head against the wall like a sad animal. “No,” he repeats. All of a sudden he’s a toddler again. We all believe a primal element changes within us when we become adults, but that’s something we say to shade the truth: we are all one setback away from throwing a tantrum.
Rio makes a sudden movement toward her, eyes wide as bowls.
“Mom, did you hear that?”
“What?” She had been lost in thought.
“The Voice. You won! You won the lottery. Oh my god.”
She had been so engrossed in soothing him, she has no idea what he’s talking about. Then that familiar chime pierces her auditory cortex—the one that accompanies the fanfare of the lottery announcement: “To repeat, Trin Nguyen from zip 11204, you are the winner of this month’s lottery. You will have five minutes of unfettered access to Global.”
“You’re dehydrated,” Rio says, setting a glass of water on the coffee table.
She sits up on the couch and sips. He lays a piece of paper next to her. “Read this. It outlines all the points we want to make. I timed it. Just under five minutes.”
She had blacked out after the announcement. That’s never happened before. She’s always in control of her mind and body, and yet, she barely recalls the walk over to her son’s apartment.
Out of all the people in the world… why her? The lottery is advertised as a billion-sided random dice. But she knows better—the system doesn’t make choices at random. Her voice would be broadcast to every implant in the world. Uninterruptible. At the same level as the Voice.
Her chest tightens simply thinking about it.
Rio is back at the typewriter tapping staccato beats. She hasn’t seen him this energized in years. The few lamps in his windowless studio apartment send shimmers off the Faraday coating that he’d applied to the walls. A constant musk of ozone hangs in the air.
“I thought you said you’d get rid of that paint.”
“And let the Voice eavesdrop?” he says, continuing his typing.
“Sealing it off completely only makes you weak. You’ll be more vulnerable when you’re outside.”
“Mom, we need to focus. It’s going to be so delicious… tearing into the system on Global,” he says.
“I’m doing no such thing,” she says.
“We have to get this right. Every syllable has to be perfect.”
“Listen to me, Rio. Do you really think that the Voice will allow me to say anything I want? Have you heard about the other winners? They’re all sanitized, spouting off sponsored nonsense for some corp.”
“They’re sheep,” he says, standing up and touching one of the tattered posters hanging on the wall: images of downtrodden masses against sepia-toned landscapes. A luminescent figure burst forth from the center, tendrils shooting out from her fingers that coalesce into the neon words Let Your Voice Be Heard.
“You aren’t like the others. You’re Trin Nguyen.”
When Rio gets this excited, logic doesn’t deter him. The speech he wrote has the flourishes of an antiquated document akin to Martin Luther’s post on the church door. It’s so dense that no one would understand it. The Voice would, though, and it would do one of two things: reject it, or, find out who really authored the speech. Rio—with his arrest record—could be detained for life. She had even heard of the Voice using the implant to inflict permanent brain damage.
“If you think that’s good, wait for my next draft,” he says.
His voice had an edge of hubris that reminded Trin of his father. Who is this person? Merely an hour ago, her son was a dejected infant.
Rio flings the next draft into her lap like a gauntlet. The prose is even more impenetrable. Except for the last phrase: “Fuck the Voice.”
“Subtle,” she says.
“This is what we’ve been working up to.”
“You haven’t been working up to anything. There’s a reason why I don’t go condemning the Voice on the streets with dozens of implants within earshot.”
“You won’t be on a street corner. You have a chance to speak to every breathing human in the world.”
Trin is allergic to such ideals. His friends wore black, had code names like Merlin and Cupid, and went to bars in Brooklyn blasting last century’s punk. They pattered around acting like stoned-out misfits, standing at street corners chanting in unison from their implants, inundating the local feed. People who walked by were forced to turn their implants to the lowest volume setting. All they did was annoy the very people who they say are oppressed.
“The lottery is a gimmick,” she says. “It’s a farcical show. I’m not going to read this. You know why? Because investigators are going to knock down your door.”
“You can’t waste this opportunity,” he mutters, syncopating each syllable with a peck at the keyboard.
“I’ll give a public service announcement. Tell people to wash their hands or wear masks when they’re sick. That would actually save lives.”
He continues typing. This is how the quiet house she’s built burns. Rio and his buddies are playing a dangerous game—one that others have played by hiring doctors to rip out their implants without considering how trivial it is for the Voice to detect and quash it. Discarded into a stainless steel tray, the chip can still hear and see everything. The only way to defeat such a system is a steady march through the institutions that created the demons. She is teaching people at her rehab center to be more resilient-tools to ignore the Voice using sheer will. Quietly. Undetected. If every so-called rebel did their part one bite-sized chunk at a time, well, there wouldn’t need to be a rebellion. Everyone would be free and the Voice would be none the wiser.
Rio stopped typing. “Tell me the truth. You like the Voice, don’t you?”
“I never said that.”
He tears the paper out of the typewriter. “The final draft.” The prose is more succinct but still littered with one too many exclams. The usual talking points: the Voice is mind control, the Voice is evil, the Voice should have never been created.
It still hasn’t sunk in that she’s won the lottery. Could she refuse the rare honor? “Publicly denouncing the Voice is—“
“Your right. Our right,” Rio interrupted. He paces barefoot, stepping over a field of discarded beer cans. “As afforded by the system, our right to speak our mind directly via the Voice. The previous lottery winners went on to sell books. Books that are sanctioned by the Voice!”
“I’ll consider it,” she says, folding the manuscript.
He beads his eyes. “You’re going to throw it away, aren’t you?”
She shakes her head.
“You’re lying.” He took the paper back and crumpled it. “You don’t ever tell me the truth. Just like Dad.” He walks over to his table and slides the typewriter to the ground. It bounces like a rock skipping across a cold lake. He’s losing control again. And she knows that staying here when that happens only makes it worse. He needs space to breathe. To consider.
“I need some air,” she says, quietly slipping out the door. She expects him to follow and protest, but he doesn’t.
Trin wanders the neighborhood. The light of day retreats slowly, as if unsure of itself. A chorus of voices from those around her pierces her skull:
You should thank the Voice for the opportunity
Such an ungrateful bitch
You never appreciated it
If you only understood how good you have it
She blanks out their comments. Instead, she thinks of her late husband Danny. He died from complications when his implant shorted and paralyzed the left side of his body. The settlement is still tied in the courts.
From then on, the Voice acted as if her husband never existed. Had it spiked the voltage on purpose? Danny was a model citizen—a devoted programmer who had a hand in building the Voice’s network. She had picked through the memory of the last weeks leading up to her husband’s accident over and over. There was no reason for the Voice to take such drastic action.
It is too painful to think about. She starts to jog. Then breaks into a full sprint. She has no particular destination in mind. Her long brown hair frames her face and trails behind her like a black veil. She runs until her breath is ragged until she hits the murky Hudson, then turns north, running the length of Central Park until the din of the city recedes.
She grits her teeth and leans on a bench, hunching over to catch her breath. What if Rio is right? Maybe this indirect method of pushing against the Voice is only a slow path to her death at its hands. If there was a moment for action, it would be during that five-minute window.
A smile creeps over her face. She knows what she must say. She makes the plans on the meandering walk back to Rio’s apartment.
She finds him meditating on the floor. He lurches to his feet. “Mom, have you been crying?”
“I’m okay,” Trin says. “Don’t let me bother you.”
The typewriter had been put away. His speech sat in a neat pile on his desk.
“I followed you.”
“Did you now.”
Rio nods. “I trust you to say what’s best,” he says. “I don’t want to lose you, too.”
“I want you to know, whatever happens. I have a plan. It won’t be quick. We’re talking years or decades. But the plan will work.” She gently cradles his head. Rio always had a baby face, those plump cheeks lingering into adulthood. “You’re all I have. I trust you.”
Rio smiles and sits back down and pats the floor. “Let’s meditate together.”
Solemn silence pervades Central, the local management building for the Voice located on the lower east side. The heavyset clerk presents an open palm toward the plush chairs. “Trin Nguyen. Please take a seat.”
Trin sits and Rio follows suit. A small jet injector emerges from beneath the coffee table and sprays fresh mint droplets, a feeble attempt to calm the mood. She didn’t want him to come. The moment she doesn’t read his speech, she knows he will make a scene. Or maybe he’s come to terms with her strategy.
She listens to the burble from the government employees as they stroll by. It’s like a chant: low and slow phrases.
“I have a new draft,” Rio says. “Important changes.”
“What you wrote was fine,” Trin says. “I memorized the speech. They won’t let me bring any materials into the broadcast room.”
“You’re right about toning it down. Maybe we shouldn’t be so aggressive.”
“What happened to being bold?” she smiles.
Rio picks at his teeth. He’s probably more nervous than she is.
The clerk waves another wand across their necks to ensure there are no additional implants on them. Even though there are safeguards in place, access to Global means that signals from her brain would be amplified around the world.
They are shuttled into the broadcast room. A podium sits like a lone tree in a white desert. Prompters in lab coats pepper her with questions and statements:
Do you solemnly swear to uphold the integrity of Global?
Who are your sponsors? None? How strange!
What is your message?
“World peace,” she says.
“That is fine,” one prompter says. He has a bulbous forehead, only accentuated by his baldness. The implants from the other prompters are silent when he speaks, so he must be the lead.
After a brief deliberation, the lead prompter flips a switch.
“Everything you say will override other signals on the feed. Even the Voice. We will be applying a real-time filter. Do not attempt to incite violence or speak against the Voice. You will be charged with treason if you do so, and your speech altered to reflect more suitable themes.” His grin reveals yellowing teeth. “Got it?”
She nods and takes her place at the podium. The tentacles of the broadcast system reach into her implant. Even though she knows the Voice can’t reach past her implant and into her mind, she still steels herself, hurling her inner thoughts deep within herself. In front of her, the camera starts broadcasting a video of her full body. She realizes that the past winners must have stood here as well. She remembers their voices, chirping vapid messages into her transplant. Loud but forgettable. Perhaps whatever she says would be ignored as well.
A mirror descends from the ceiling and transforms from a reflective surface to a digital window. Images of people across the world flow through the glass—an old Japanese woman in a pink robe, four kids in a Seoul bedroom jumping up and down on a mountain of pillows, a young man dressed in military fatigues covered in dust. Children cry because they have no way of controlling their implants. Mothers kiss their young, preparing them for a nap.
The head prompter lowers his hand like a conductor. “You may begin.”
Rio nods and manages a nervous smile. Trin inhales as deep as the Mariana Trench, blanks her mind, and constructs a sturdy wall around her implant, driving electrical activity to null. Puzzled looks appear on the prompter’s faces. Is there a technical issue? Maybe they’d over-filtered her message? Confused faces peer through the glass. The kids stop jumping. The old woman furrows her brow. Even the infants stop crying.
One. Two. Three. Even breathes. The space she’s created is strange—everyone expects it to be brimming with vocal undulations.
A thick silence flows from Global, overriding every other implant channel. No music. No advertisements. No chatter. She lets this wave of stillness lap the shores in people’s minds. If even a slice of that peace confers to her listeners, then she would have done her job.
Stillness pervades the crowd. Limbs relax. People pause amid crosswalks. Pianists cease playing concertos, leaving auditoriums quiet except for the occasional cough. Friends drop conversations mid-sentence, staring at one another dumbfounded.
A faint hum grows beneath the blanket of silence. The tentacles of the Voice writhe. The hum crescendos. “Say something,” the Voice says. Is that agitation she senses? No. It is desperation. She makes the wall between herself and the implant thicker, not allowing even a single spike of neuronal activity to touch silicon.
“Speak!” the Voice commands.
The crowds begin to murmur:
What is happening?
Is my implant broken?
Is she saying something?
Trin shuts her eyes tight, compressing her inner self into a tiny point of light. She won’t let the Voice influence her. These five minutes were for her to commune with the world. They would understand the value of calm.
Somewhere in the middle of the fourth minute, guttural screams break out.
I can’t hear the feed! Help me!
Aaah! Where is everyone?
MY HEART HAS STOPPED
A middle-aged man, sitting at his desk, smacks his neck with a knife hand, shocked that such stillness was even possible. Even the Voice goes dead silent.
Rio’s voice breaks through her veil of concentration: “Mom, you have to say something!”
Trin opens her eyes. She could utter a friendly phrase. A platitude. But she won’t do it through the implant. She wants to use her real voice: to vibrate air particles.
She opens her mouth to say “I love you.” A tingle of pain runs from the top of her head down her forehead and into her throat. Dead air blow across her vocal cords.
At last, she understands the truth: the Voice hates many things, but silence… it abhors silence. Then a sickly sweet smell of singed flesh wafts through the air. Something is wrong.
The Voice had taken her voice. A split-second electric shock is all it took.
And now Rio is by her side, tears running down his face. He knows what has happened. She crumples into his arms. The prompters encircle them, a cacophony roaring from their implants—they are as confused as she is. Rio is murmuring something, but she cannot make out what.
She peers again at the mirror, looking past the pained crowds to another mass of people who had sat down and closed their eyes. At peace. They are whispering:
Souls moved to the possibilities of silence.
Most importantly, her dear Rio is safe. He would carry the torch that she lit. He would teach the world the importance of silence.