Updated: Jan 6, 2020
By Faith Chan (4C), Chong Ying (4J), Odelia Hiew (4K) from the CID4+ English AI Module
The sky is a peculiarly deep shade of amethyst on Kepler 452-b when lunch break finally starts. It pours in from the gigantic overhead window in Kallera’s office, drowning under the harsh blue light of her monitor screen. The shade of purple is alluringly beautiful, but warns of a disastrous sandstorm approaching ahead.
Not that she notices, of course; her dark eye circles and constant yawns make that obvious enough. She’s stooped over on her desk, brown eyes still fixated on the screen, eyebrows furrowing as she inputs in new stock. The expedition that Maxon directed last week proved to be fruitful, but new Galdot mines in the north mean that she’ll have to completely overwrite the current schedules again. Another sigh, but she leans in closer to the screen, trying hard to focus on task again.
“It’s lunch break, get out of your lair!” A familiar, albeit muffled voice yells, breaking Kallera out of her concentration yet again. This time she gives up completely, slumping on the desk.
Alexa doesn’t even wait for Kallera to reply before she bounces into the room. “Come on, I’m hungry!” She whines.
“I still have work to do.”
“I don’t care!” As usual, Alexa is the one to remind Kallera of lunch break, and to drag her out to the long conference table for their usual meals with the others.
But something...something feels off today. It’s a small, irking feeling, that makes her eyebrow twitch and her toes curl. She can’t quite put her finger on it just yet.
Walking out to the pantry, Kallera sees the familiar catered lunch boxes, the same food every day for a week packed in a white styrofoam box. This week is rice with black pepper beef and veggies. The pepper’s always too strong or non-existent, but they’re a welcome change from broccoli and salmon. Kallera stacks two for Alexa and herself, while Alexa takes two as well for Maxon and Keefe.
The two men are already at their usual bench, both individually hunched over their holo-screens to finish up last-minute work. The strange feeling in her heart comes back at the sight.
“Hey!” Alexa smacks Maxon on the head. As they scuffle, Kallera takes a seat and smiles cordially at Keefe, before digging into her food.
Lunch break goes about the same as any other, with mostly Alexa and Maxon keeping the conversation flowing, while Kallera adds in occasional comments and Keefe just watches silently while continuing to do his work.
“Oh, Maxon, how was the expedition last week?” Alexa asks.
“Not very fruitful. We did have a decent intake of Galdot, but we spent four hours on that space rover feeling looking at nothing but yellow sand for miles. And when we finally went somewhere, we just saw rocks. They’re great, sure, but the sight of them is really underwhelming.” Maxon sighs.
“Your entire job revolves around rocks. All of our jobs revolve around rocks.” Alexa says amusedly.
“At least your jobs are more interesting than mine. I just travel around fruitlessly. You and Keefe sit in labs and analyse.”
“Anyway, you don’t have the shorter end of the stick. Kallera’s going to suffer through agony to input your new findings into the database. Right, Kallera?” Alexa elbows her.
At that moment, it strikes Kallera like a bolt of lightning.
“I’m going to quit.” The words are foreign on her tongue, but at the mere utterance of them, the whole table falls into a hushed silence.
“...What?” Maxon asks. “Kallera, what are you talking about?”
“I’m quitting. I’m sick of working like this every single day, I’m sick of eating the same damn food all the time. I’m sick of seeing only you guys every day and the CEO once in a while. I want to go home.”
The silence continues. Then Maxon leans in, face serious.
“Are you sure? Do you really think they’ll let you go? We all made the same decision to work here. What makes you different?”
“My bond here is almost up, Maxon. I’ve been here for six years with you guys, I’ve done my part. I’ll convince them to let me go.” Kallera sighs. Alexa and Maxon talk over each other as they argue back, words rising in volume.
“Kallera, no one’s ever succeeded in quitting.” A new voice says. Keefe’s been quiet all this while, but his mere words shock them into silence. Kallera feels her heart drop.
“What do you mean?” Alexa furrows her brows.
“They all send in their resignation letters, and the letters just get rejected.” Keefe shrugs, shoving another bite of pepper beef into his mouth. “It’s just a rumour, but it’s been around for so long that everyone just kinda accepts it as the truth.”
“Well, that’s just stupid. Isn’t that illegal?” Maxon says, and they’re off discussing employee rights. Kallera just stays quiet, ruminating over Keefe’s words.
They can’t be true, can they?
Sandra Hartman is scary at best, and downright monstrous at worst. She’s barely five feet, but her air of intimidation is enough to bowl a person over. Even so, Kallera’s known Sandra for almost 10 years by now, and she meets Sandra at the landing pod confidently.
“Hello, Kallera,” Sandra nods to her. She’s in a long work dress, straight dark hair falling around her as she takes off her space helmet and properly steps into the office.
At the sight of her, Kallera thinks about her decision to quit yet again.
“Your work has been losing steam lately.” Sandra reprimands. “Galdot collection has been slow, even with last week’s slight increase. You’re one of the most capable and longest-serving employees that Zion Corporation has. You need to do better than this.”
They fall in silence as they walk to Kallera’s office, but Kallera continues to think about Sandra’s words. Was she really that qualified? Once, she was offered a position at Sandra’s level: to manage an entire solar system of planets on her own, keeping track of each planet’s status. A higher position of power was a lot more money and autonomy, but Kallera had refused in the end, too scared. Was she really that good a manager? And was she really that good at all, if she refused to make the jump, just like that?
And ironically, now, she was quitting her job entirely.
The office is a sprawling metal jungle, and even though the walk to her office is long, Kallera watches as Sandra smiles politely and unfailingly at every nervous employee that stands up to greet her.
When the door to Kallera’s office slides shut firmly behind them, Kallera turns to Sandra, looking her down, and blurts it out.
“I want to quit.”
A pindrop of silence as Sandra stares as her, wordless, before she seems to gather her wits again. She drops into the chair next to Kallera’s, looking strange. When she continues to avoid Kallera’s gaze, Kallera begins to panic just a little.
“I’m sorry, I know I should have sent in an official resignation letter, but I thought I should tell you first, because we’ve known each other for so long and —”
“Okay, okay, just sit down first.” Sandra interrupts. Kallera does just that, hesitatingly. The distance between them isn’t much, but in that moment, Sandra feels like millions of light years away.
Sandra looks deep in thought, but when she finally looks up, her eyes are filled with nothing but determination.
“Kallera, listen to me closely. This is something absolutely confidential, but right now is a good time to tell you. The higher-ups have been receiving complaints like yours for years now, but they’ve rejected every single resignation letter. No one knows why. But we do know that in response, they’ve actually been experimenting with something completely new: Artificial Intelligence.”
Kallera blinks. “What?”
“They’ve been prototyping AI assistants. Assistants that could help managers and employees in the workplace with different tasks. It’s an early project, but in the current stage, they’ve been testing it in lab conditions only. If you want, I could send a request for one of these AIs to be sent to Kepler 542-b to help you out.”
Sandra’s leaning forward, eyes serious, but Kallera’s head swims. “Isn’t that risky?”
Sandra’s eyes soften. “It’s either that or nothing. Come on, it’s worth a try.”
Kallera has no choice but to agree.
Kallera 2.0 arrives in the form of a gigantic rectangular box, carefully plated with metal. Staring at its upright form in her office, Kallera scans her handprint on the surface of the box, and the metal slides apart with ease to reveal the android.
Its body is metal but covered in a white, matte finish on all exposed areas. Rings of light sit on both its shoulders, now dim, and a small white button protrudes from its chest. Effort had been made to make it human-like — with anatomically proportionate body parts, of course - but none had been made to integrate it into the office population at all. At first glance, with its smooth head and oddly androgynous features, you would immediately know it was non-human.
Opening the box and finding the android inside feels too reminiscent of opening a coffin and looking at the body. Kallera shudders at the thought.
“Take it out of the box, set it upright…” Kallera mumbles, staring at the android. She clenches her jaw and gets to work.
Kallera heaves the android out of the box with both arms, struggling with the weight. She almost falls over but quickly regains her composure and drags it out fully, propping it up against the wall.
It balances well on its two legs and stands almost upright, except its head and arms droop slightly and hang slack. Kallera pushes the small button on its chest, and immediately, the android’s lights glow a pleasant light green; it slowly raises its head and straightens its body.
All Kallera can do is back away and stare.
Definitely off of my bucket list.
The android moves more smoothly than she thought. It first looks straight ahead, then focuses its attention on the human in front of it.
Its voice is also androgynous, but sounds human.
“H-hi…” Kallera stammers, and forces out a smile. “Do you have a name…?”
“No, I do not. You may address me however you wish.”
“Okay… My name is Kallera. You’ll be helping me out with my work.”
“I understand that, Kallera.”
She lets out a dry laugh. “I guess I can call you Kallera 2.0. Or Kal.”
Kallera is sweating a bit. What does one do when faced with a robot?
“You’re on the planet Kepler-452b. And you’re supposed to do whatever I tell you to do.”
“You… can go back to standby mode now.”
“Going back to standby.”
The android’s body relaxes and it goes back to its initial standby stage.
Kallera doesn’t know how to feel.
Kallera shifts in her seat in anticipation. On usual days, nothing else can make her as excited as an early lunch break. But today, just today, food, her first love, could not make her as restless as the introduction of Kallera 2.0 to her employees. So this is how being a mother feels like. As Kallera glances at the clock again, she almost cries in joy when the second hand strikes the clock at the sacred time of eleven o’clock. She has to compose herself. Kallera Augrian is a calm, cool woman and nothing can change that fact.
Kallera takes big strides out of her office towards the common space for employees. There, the sleek automatic doors slide open as it senses her presence. When she enters the room, the sudden disturbance to the quiet surroundings causes several heads to snap up.
Clearing her throat slightly, Kallera chirps, "Good work everyone. We will be having an early lunch break. There's something I want to show you."
The rustling of paper, the shutting of laptops, the clicking of pens. In the blink of an eye, Kallera finds herself at the long table in the pantry, numerous pairs of eyes staring intently at her. She clears her throat again. The plastic flower sitting in the table vase smiles brightly at her.
"A minute," she mutters. As she exits the pantry, Kallera can feel pairs and pairs of eyes burning holes in her back. But she is not worried. Soon, those pairs of eyes will be fixated on another Kallera.
A turn to the left. Past the work cubicles. Across the hall. Kallera knows the layout of the company at the back of her hand. She approaches the storeroom. As Kallera flicks on the light, she finds the object that has been occupying her thoughts the entire morning. Within minutes of carrying and dragging, Kallera 2.0 is finally face to face with her employees.
Kallera runs her fingers along the robot delicately, them finding their place at a small protrusion near the centre of the chest. The button is small and white, barely noticeable. She jabs the button. As Kallera 2.0 whirrs to life, a small part of her can't help but worry. She frees herself from the negative thoughts. It will be a success.
"This is Kal. She will be helping me and taking over some of my roles in the company." Kallera gestures over, diverting the awaiting eyes to the AI. “Kal, please introduce yourself."
"Hello, it's Kal. It's a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to working with everyone." Kal gives the employees a friendly wave. Kallera watches as the eyes of her employees widen in awe. Just as she expected, the questions start to roll in.
“When will this be taking effect?”
Before Kallera could reply, Kal cuts in for her. “From now onwards.”
“What are you capable of doing?”
“Everything that Kallera has to do.”
“Will you really be replacing Kallera?” Kal answers every question diligently and with great precision. Kallera, who is standing at the back of the room watching this exchange, can’t help but let out a huge sigh. Looks like she can finally take a backseat.
It is now time for Kal to start learning the ropes of the company. On Kallera’s table stands stacks and stacks of paper. She gestures to a pile. “These are the contracts with other large enterprises. They are mainly for reference purposes.”
Pointing to another heap, Kallera says, “This is the paperwork. It has to be done everyday.” Just like that, she points out and explains the mountains of paper on her desk.
Next, she flips open the laptop. “Emails are to be read on a daily basis, and planning can be done in softcopy.”
Finally, she moves to make eye contact with Kal. “Ensure that employees are given a fair amount of work and they are on task daily.”
"That’s all for now. Do you understand?" the robot nods. Wow, this is easier than expected. Kallera can finally take a break. “I will be assigning you some work. Please get them done by tomorrow.” Kallera orders Kal. And then it is over. The work day is over, what a relief. It has been a long time since she had a night of undisturbed rest.
An annoying ringing is making Kallera’s head spin. She grunts. Using a pillow to smother her ears from the consistent ringing, she stretches her arm towards the bedside table. Fumble. Fumble. Fumble. Kallera slaps the button on the alarm clock and the room becomes quiet again. As she reaches out to check for the time, she stifles a yawn. Oh snap, it is already 9.27. Kallera drops the alarm clock on the floor.
Kallera has never seen her hands work so fast. Just a minute ago, she was still standing in her checkered pajamas in the bedroom. Once she slips on her bunny slippers, the sequence of her morning routine kicks in, at a speed a thousand times faster.
The drive to the office is 5 minutes away. From the minute she hops into her seat, her feet comes pressing down on the accelerator.
All Kallera has to figure out now is what excuse she will give to justify her tardiness. Her car broke down? She was searching for keys? Or the real reason: she overslept. The dilemma seems to weigh her down like a tonne of bricks.
But the greatest plot twist of the century goes here: as she pushes open the door, she sees Kal - the android, Kal! - giving the presentation in her place. In her blazer and pencil skirt, Kal looks regal. Almost like a queen.
“This explains why our stock shares are able to increase.” It finishes off. Perfectly. And at that moment, Kallera felt a foreign emotion burn in her gut uncomfortably. Jealousy. All her life, Kallera has never known jealousy. People were the ones looking at her the same way she is looking at Kal. Guess there’s a first for everything, she thinks bitterly.
After the presentation, Kallera pulls Kal aside.
“Why did you decide to present on my behalf?” Kallera fires.
“You weren’t there and we needed to uphold a reputation.” Kallera feels like she just got punched in the gut.
What is going on? Why does this remind her so much of herself? Don’t tell me...oh my goodness, this can’t be happening.
"How would you treat a colleague who refuses to do his work?" She asks for good measure.
“Set up a trap for him to fall into.” Kallera sucks in a breath. Isn’t this how she would react in such a situation too?
“How do you like your coffee?"
“Two pure shots of expresso.” This is really happening. Kal is being an exact replica of herself.
It’s another usual morning on Kepler-452b. Nothing different from the routine Kallera’s been running for the past few years. She gets to the office, greets everyone, starts work, then...
What is it doing on my chair, in my office?
This is the first time she’s greeted with this sight.
First of all, Kal is wearing one of her blazers, again. If it were another day or if Kallera had put it on herself, she would think it was funny or cute, but all the sight does is make Kallera’s eyebrows twitch.
Next, Kal is sitting in her chair. This sets off the biggest alarm bells, and triggers something much too red and much too angry in Kallera.
If you asked her, she wouldn’t be able to tell you why she acted the way she did. But she would say she regretted nothing.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY CHAIR?” she all but screams, not even bothering to hide her discontent.
Kal simply glances over from its paperwork. The look on its face is no different from when they first met - but the aura it exudes this time, instead of being of an inanimate object, is intimidating and almost overbearing. It feels like Kal is the boss. Kallera doesn’t like that one bit.
“I’m doing work,” Kal replies, before looking back down.
“Doing MY work, sitting in MY chair, wearing MY blazer! I never taught you to take things without permission, did I?”
“I’m learning from you.” Kal shoots back.
Kallera freezes. That’s it. This thing is getting out of control.
It’s then that Alexa bursts into the room with a stack of files in hand. “Hey Kal. I got the reports ready for you.”
The blonde doesn’t spare Kallera even a glance. She strides over to Kal’s desk and places the files down.
“Thank you, Alexa.”
“Anytime!” She smiles brightly before taking her leave.
Kallera has to bite back a scream.
Kallera can barely see past the haze of red in her vision as she storms back to her office. Kal, this stupid robot that created after HER image, modelled after HER, having the nerve to take HER place?
The call request to Sandra gets rejected. Kallera curses angrily under her breath, and jabs the on-screen button again and again. On the eighth try, Sandra finally picks up. Her image appears on the large holo-screen at the front of Kallera’s office in crystal-clear quality, depicting a dim room and a clearly-exhausted Sandra.
“What the— “ Her voice is groggy, rough from sleep. Kallera feels guilt strike her, but brushes it away cleanly for the anger still burning hot in her gut.
“Your robot is out of control!” She yells. Sandra jumps a little, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s sitting in my chair and pretending to be better than me when all it is a hunk of metal! what authority does it even have?” Kallera fumes.
Sandra doesn’t even pause before she replies. “Well, is she pretending?”
“Is she pretending to be better than you or is she actually better than you?” Sandra repeats flatly. “Look, all I’m getting is that you’re insecure that she’s working better than you, and you don’t like it.”
“If you know I don’t like that damn thing, then get it away from me!”
Sandra yawns. “Nope, can’t do that.”
“In the last two weeks, information from all your employees have shown a drastic improvement in mood and productivity. And the only major change in a while is the addition of Kallera 2.0.”
At this, Sandra leans closer to the holo-screen, suddenly serious. “Look, Kallera. All she is is an experiment. We don’t know what will happen next. No one does. If she’s doing a better job than you now, then just deal with it.”
“I—” Kallera stutters. Before she can get another word out, the holo-screen cuts off into black, plunging her back into an office that suddenly seems too bleak, too hopeless, too alone.
Kallera curses out loud.
The next few days are uneventful, save for the restless, frustrated thrumming under her skin. Kallera avoids Kal to the best of her ability, only talking to Kal when she needs to give orders. Instead, she lets the anger fuel her to work even harder, stay up later into the nights.
“You need to come to terms with it sooner or later,” Keefe had told her. Maxon and Alexa had agreed wholeheartedly, but she didn’t reply. He was right, of course he was. But it would take more than just that to make her change her mind.
In the end, the problem end in the same way it started: Through Kal.
Kallera’s planning the next expedition to the south of Kepler-452b when Kal approaches her in her office. It looks impeccable as always, emotionless eyes boring into her as it stands next to her desk.
“Kallera. we need to talk.” Kallera’s temper flares up at the command, but she pushes it down.
“About what, exactly?” She clips back.
“It is about your impromptu call to Sandra, to be exact.” Kallera freezes. Kal turns itself to face her completely, staring her down before it continues. “This is a timely reminder that Zion Incorporated has programmed me to prioritise task execution above anything else. If a threat is faced, I must exterminate it. Do not make yourself a threat, or you will bear the full consequences.” Kal doesn’t wait for her to reply before it leaves.
Kallera’s blood runs cold.
When the threat is identified, it must be exterminated at all costs. When the threat is self-aware that it is a threat, it must be exterminated even faster.
The office is dark. Big windows let in minute amounts of purple glow, just enough for Kallera’s long black shadow to be cast on the tiled floor. She is here. She is ready. She will not leave without finishing what she came here for.
Her grip tightens on the screwdriver as she makes her way past empty cubicles. Treading with caution, she finally reaches her office door and swiftly presses her thumb to the cool glass sensor. It blinks to life and turns green, before the metal door clicks open softly.
Kallera nudges the door open with her shoulder, making sure that both her feet are on the carpet before pressing the door shut behind her. Step 1: Get in the office, complete.
Kepler 452-b’s midnight sky pours in from the window overhead. Tonight’s view is a little different — the clouds are full and thick but the moon gleams bright still. Its light is barely enough to illuminate the room, falling gently on the table, the screen, and just beside them— Kal.
There it is.
The blazer is off and Kal’s shoulder lights are blue, indicating standby mode. It stands upright but its arms hang loosely and its head droops. The scene is mildly unsettling, but Kallera pushes the feeling down and grips her tools a little tighter.
She bites her lip and squeezes her eyes shut, silently wishing herself luck, and exhales with a newfound confidence. Then, she creeps over to her desk and places her tools down, before setting her hands on the sledgehammer on her back and bringing it to her front. She winces at the weight, but steels herself for what needs to be done.
Step. Kal’s lights flicker a little, but remain blue.
Step. Kallera can feel the slick of her palms on the old wood.
Step. They’re right in front of each other.
Her biceps burn but the sledgehammer goes all the way up, ready to strike in three, two -
Kallera’s wristband shrieks to life, flashing green with an alert - ”THE LATEST EPISODE OF ‘MY DAD IS A HIDE-AND-SEEK CHAMPION’ IS HERE!” - and she feels her sanity finally crumble into a million pieces.
Kal’s eyes fly open, glaring like the sun in the dark office; its lights turn from blue to a neon green. “Kallera,” it says, and for a moment, the brunette freezes and sees her life flash before her eyes.
What are you waiting for? Snap out of it! Finish the job!
Kallera brings the sledgehammer down hard on Kal’s head but she’s too late - Kal catches her arms before they come all the way down and squeezes them hard. Kallera holds back a scream; instead she gasps and her eyes go wide.
“I knew this would happen someday. Human emotion is too predictable. You were showing signs of jealousy from the start.” Kal’s eyes narrow and her hold tightens to the point that Kallera feels like her blood vessels might explode. “What do you mean-”
Kal shoves her away, sending her crashing into the wall. She winces at the impact, but tries to ignore the burning pain. The sledgehammer is clutched in her arms like a lifeline.
“I learned from you. I learned what to do and what not to do. I saw the changes in your expression, the difference in your attitude. Humans are too obvious and have too much pride.” Kal towers over Kallera, staring at her like a predator stares at their prey. “I thought you wanted to leave? Why can’t you concede now when it has been proven that I am better than you?”
“Because I’m not losing to a pile of junk metal!”
In a sudden surge of strength, Kallera hurls the sledgehammer as hard as she can in front of her, and it slams into Kal’s body with a piercing crash. Kal staggers back and crashes into her table, knocking her monitor and remotes to the floor. While Kal is down, she grabs the hammer that fell off the desk and starts blindly hitting it, getting in every strike possible before she gets pushed away again.
Kallera’s hair is a mess of loose curls and she feels a bruise forming on her lower back, but she feels the adrenaline like hot lava coursing through her veins and has never felt more alive.
When the android gets back up, the dents on its face and body glint in the dim light. Its left cheek is sunken and the outer layer of its left arm is gone, revealing the twisted clutter of wires and cords beneath. “And yet, this ‘pile of junk metal’ has gotten the respect of your employees in less than a fraction of the time that you took. Stop denying it, Kallera.”