Cass Armstrong pecked out the remaining characters of her answer to the essay question. With a tap of the send button, she completed the last of her first semester finals. Cass waited for the screen to clear, showing the university’s testing system had received the exam. As a green check mark displayed, she stood and started towards the door.
She looked around the room as she left. It pleased her to see she wasn’t the last person to finish the final exam. Cass had struggled initially in her classes, primarily because her ability to study for the exams was reliant upon using outdated technology. Her family’s technophobia and fear of artificial intelligence systems had kept her from bringing the latest hardware to school.
That all changed after Cass had a jet ski accident during her fall break. The cybernetic implants she had received to fix her injured brain, right eye, and ear also enabled her to access the central AI network known as the Mantle. The add-on enhancements helped her to study more efficiently, record video and audio from all of her classes, and index them via a transcription app she’d downloaded.
The implant in Cass’s head had likely made the difference between passing and failing this semester. She shook her head at the irony of it all. Cass still remembered when she had first awakened after her emergency surgery. She had been sure it meant the end of her life as she knew it.
Now Cass accessed the Mantle without a second thought and checked the network for messages as she headed for the elevators. Her inbox in the cloud received the query and returned the same response she’d received prior to the beginning of the exam two hours before.
Cass had hoped for a message from her girlfriend, Shelby Moore. Shelby had gone home to Boston to be with her family after her brother was murdered. Cass missed her so much, her heart ached at times. She understood Shelby’s need to be with family right now, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
As Cass stepped off the elevator on the ground floor of the Business School building, a familiar voice called out to her.
“Hey, Cassie,” Lisa said from across the lobby.
“Oh, hi, Lisa. How are you?”
“Finally done my finals,” Lisa replied. “I can’t believe I had to wait and stay here until the very last day of exam week for my last test.”
“Me, too. This was the exam I was most worried about, though. I’m glad I had the extra time to study.”
“Hey, have you heard from Shelby at all?”
Cass nodded. “A few times. At first, she couldn’t talk much. She was busy doing a lot of things with her family for the funeral over the last few weeks. Since then, I’ve heard from her every couple of days.”
“She left so suddenly. Do you know if she’s planning on coming back to school?”
“I hope so. I miss her, and I don’t want her to throw away her hard work from this semester.”
Lisa smiled. “You two made a great couple. I hope she comes back, too. I miss her laugh.”
Cass smiled. She missed Shelby’s laugh, too. It made her sad to think about how long it had been since she’d heard it. Cass decided to change the subject before things became too morose. “When are you leaving to go home?”
“My parents come to get me this afternoon. And you?”
“Mine are coming tomorrow. I’m kind of nervous, though.”
“Yeah, aren’t your folks kind of strict about things like…” Lisa reached up and tapped her own cerebral implant with her forefinger.
A grim smile crossed Cass’s face. “Yeah, you could say that. I’m hoping I can keep them from finding out about it, though. That’s why I have to head back to the dorm. I have a lot to do to get ready before my mom and dad get here in the morning.”
Lisa waved goodbye. “Well, good luck. I’ll see you next semester.”
“Yeah, see you then.”
Lisa turned off towards the student center as she left the building’s entrance. Cass turned in the opposite direction and headed towards the edge of campus and the freshman dorms. She had some important errands to run this afternoon after she stopped by her room.
Cass’s plan to hide the implant on the right side of her head and face began with a sort of disguise. She’d already gotten an artificial skin covering to hide the metal surface that extended from her right temple back over her ear. Her hair had finally grown back post-surgery, too, so it helped to conceal the implant on that side when she wore it down. The synthetic skin patch was the first line of defense and essential for keeping her parents from learning about her cybernetic parts.
That wasn’t the only challenge Cass faced going home. The Sapiens Movement enclave in which her family lived was surrounded by a powerful and sensitive virtual firewall. It was that barrier that had her most concerned and it was the reason for the next part of her plan. It required a risky trip to a sketchy neighborhood downtown, alone. Because of that, Cass had been putting it off all week.
She checked the time in her system and picked up her pace. She was excited to get back to the dorm because she’d planned to chat with Shelby for the first time in two days when she got back after the test.
Cass hoped Shelby had worked out a way to finish her fall semester classes remotely from home. She’d still been working on getting the details squared away when she and Cass last chatted.
The eerily silent dorm was almost empty. Most of the students had completed their finals earlier in the week and had already headed home. The only person she saw was the upper-class dorm monitor, Mitch. He sat at the front desk in the lobby as Cass entered the building.
“Hi, Cassie. Remember you need to check out of your dorm room before you leave. There’s a whole checklist we need to go over. Tomorrow’s the last day.”
“I know. I’m working on finishing up getting packed now. Everything else is going to stay here during the break until I return.”
“Will Shelby be coming back, too?”
“That’s what I hope. I think she’ll have everything squared away at home by then. I have to go. She’s supposed to drop in for a face chat soon.”
Mitch nodded and went back to something he’d been doing on the desktop screen. Cass headed down the hallway towards her room. Her implant signaled the cybernetic lock on the dorm room door of her arrival. She heard the click of the deadbolt unlocking the door as she reached for the handle. Cass entered her room, dropping her purse on the desk before flopping down on the bed.
She lay there for a long time, staring at the ceiling, trying to decide what she would say to Shelby when they spoke. Things had been more than a little awkward between them since Shelby’s sudden departure a few weeks before.
In the beginning, Cass viewed Shelby’s return home as a betrayal. Shelby had lost her brother in a horrific series of events at the Sapiens Movement rally held not far from campus near City Hall. Cass knew the loss of her brother devastated her girlfriend. Cass hadn’t come through it unscathed, either. In the struggle to get away from their vantage point on a nearby rooftop, Cass accidentally had shoved a man trying to stop them. He’d lost his balance near the roof’s edge and fallen to the sidewalk.
Cass could still see the man’s crumpled form lying on the sidewalk five stories below. The pool of blood spread out around his head on the pavement in a horrific splash of crimson. She shuddered at the thought of all she’d seen and done that day. The memory of the rally, recorded via her cybernetic eye and implant, kept her awake at night sometimes.
The man’s death had been ruled an accident by the authorities. Cass had been able to find out that much with a cursory search of the Mantle news services the next day. That didn’t mean the guilt over her part in his death didn’t gnaw at her.
It didn’t help that conspiracy theories had popped up immediately about the other things she’d seen on the rally’s stage. Naysayers downplayed the veracity of the video. Those people said the deaths of the subs on the rally’s stage were faked by those trying to discredit the Sapiens Movement.
Cass and Shelby both knew the viral video Cass had recorded wasn’t fake at all. She’d seen up close and personal the moment Shelby’s brother Eric was killed by the Sapiens First terrorist leader on stage in front of the cheering crowd.
Elena, Cass’s sister, told her everyone back home in the Sapiens enclave had a multitude of potential theories about the video. A few of those theories included the belief that the video was somehow related to the mysterious death of a rally attendee who fell from a nearby rooftop.
The viral video of the events was now known as the Saturday Massacre. Shelby had grabbed the video wirelessly from Cass’s implant and streamed it anonymously out to the entire nation. In the weeks since, it had become one of the most viewed videos of the year.
As if on cue, Cass’s implant system chimed with an alert. She opened the automated message from her inbox. A newsfeed story popped up. The alerts she’d set up about anything regarding the video notified her when a news item on the subject posted.
She activated the link and the newsfeed began playing the video newscast in her mind. It featured an interview with the leader of the Sapiens Movement, Sterling Noble.
“Mr. Noble,” the female news anchor asked, “how do you respond to the assertion that your movement was behind the deaths of the seven cyber human individuals two weeks ago?”
Sterling Noble offered the woman a sad smile. “How would you like me to respond? I have denied it in every way I can. The members of the Sapiens Movement are peaceful. Our aspirations are only political. The alleged events depicted in that video are still under investigation by our own internal security team. We believe the video is fake and are hard at work to find the source so that we can verify it was indeed fabricated.”
“How can you say the video was fabricated when the bodies of the seven individuals who died were later found in an alley not too far from the location of the Sapiens rally downtown?”
“It is our belief that those unfortunate individuals were killed as part of the plot to undermine our important work. We are not what our opponents say we are. The other members of the Sapiens Movement and I are merely people who wish to live in peace, alone and away from all artificial intelligence and robotics. The implication that we were involved in any way with their deaths is laughable.”
The leader of the Sapiens Movement moved forward in his seat, leaning towards the interviewer as he continued. “It is far more likely those people who died were involved in some criminal element among the cyber human community. It is well known to us how their subversive efforts have impacted the level of crime in the center of major metropolitan areas. They frequently use their enhanced cybernetics to take advantage of normal humans like myself and my followers. The video is further proof of their depravity.”
“So, your assertion is that the video was a pretense to discredit the Sapiens Movement?”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Sterling Noble kept his gaze level and stared the news anchor down as if daring her to ask him another question.
The female reporter shifted in her chair. “Very well, then. We’ll have to leave it there as I’m out of time for this segment. Mr. Noble, thank you for coming on the show. If you have information that you think would shed more light on this topic, you are welcome to return and share it with our audience at a later date.”
“I will certainly do that, Nancy.”
Cass shut down the video feed.
She found herself clenching her fists in anger. She’d heard it all before in other interviews, but to see the leader of the movement, a man she’d once respected, repeating the lies, only served to alienate Cass from her family even more.
How could they say Eric’s death and the death of the others had been made up? She’d seen it with her own two eyes. Sterling Noble was a friend of her family and she’d grown up believing in everything he said. Now she felt betrayed by everything he and her parents stood for.
All these thoughts warred within Cass as she went over her plans to prepare for her trip back to the enclave.