For Kristen, the decision to kill Maya was easy. There was no accompanying pang of guilt or remorse, not like when she ate that 100-calorie bag of Chips Ahoy earlier that week, her favorite trigger food, which of course led to her eating seven more 100-calorie bags of Chips Ahoy. Everything will be fine, she told herself when that happened. But it wasn’t fine, not until she buried the empty bags at the bottom of the trash bin, under the browning banana peel and the mucous-coated eggshells (the trash her mother wouldn’t bother sorting through), then put in an hour and ten minutes of HIIT cardio later that same evening.
This time, Kristen told herself, everything will be fine, and she believed it. She knew watching the light go out in Maya’s Barbie eyes was no different than shutting down her iPhone. No matter how real Maya appeared to the rest of the world, she refused to forget the truth. Kristen was secretly—beneath the “good Korean Christian girl” persona she put on for her parents and her youth group—a woman of science. Of calories in, calories out. As science would dictate, you can’t kill someone who was never alive.
Ping! She jumped, bumping her mascara wand against her eyelid. She tutted as she surveyed the damage in the mirror. It wasn’t just the black smudge that bothered her; her contouring was muddy, her eyeliner too thick. The one superstition she kept was that bad makeup foreshadowed a bad day—she would have to start over. Rubbing a makeup wipe over her face, she finally read the text that startled her: See you soon 💛 😊
If Kristen had any doubt about the ethics of killing Maya, those two emojis scrubbed it away like mini Brillo pads. That was Kristen’s emoji signature Maya had adopted as her own. Of all the emoji combinations, she had chosen this pair carefully, the yellow heart because it was her favorite color, and the blushing smiley face because she liked to over-apply her blush. The pairing was as unique to Kristen as her thumbprint.
This is why Maya had to die—she copied even the little things Kristen did.
And does it better, she thought instantly, a reflex, a neuron already fired before she could stop it. She shook it off as she reapplied her foundation, directing her thought process to the nature of plans and how they evolve. To think she had once viewed Maya as a blessing! She recalled the conversation she had with her mother in the Chick-fil-A drive-thru in early August.
“You really think she’ll choose you?” her mother had asked.
“My only competition is Hannah, and she’s not competition.”
They had been discussing Maya for weeks, ever since the superintendent of their school district announced that Kristen’s high school, which proudly demanded a yearly tuition of roughly $40,000, had been selected for the Higher Achievement Experiment.
“I hope you’re right,” her mother sighed.
There was nothing she hated more than her mother’s dismissive threats. It was one thing to threaten, to lecture, but quite another to threaten and lecture under the guise of I don’t care what you do when her mother obviously did care. It irked Kristen to no end.
“Mommy,” Kristen’s little brother, Danny, whined from the backseat. “Can the robot kill us like in Terminator?”
“She’s not that kind of robot, sweetie. She’s like a … a metric,” Kristen’s mother tried explaining. She didn’t say “role model” even though that was the word the superintendent used, and it was the word that kept showing up in all the press releases and parent emails. The idea that Kristen needed a role model, like she was some drug-addicted loser who spent her free time wandering highways, was insulting to both of them. What she needed was a push.
“I don’t know how else I can push you!”
Kristen remembered when her mother had shouted this at her, keeping one hand on the wheel, while the other waved her algebra test at her, the 99/100 score as bright as a safety vest. This was years ago, back when Kristen was in eighth grade and her mother drove her in the BMW instead of the Tesla, but the insult still rung in her ears from time to time, like a kind of tinnitus. Deep in the throes of her second-ever period, Kristen had started crying in response. She wasn’t sure how her mother could push her either—how she could make her care about a test she knew would disappear into the high percentage of her class score, leveled out by all the other tests she had scored perfectly on.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with me,” she said in a voice so small, Kristen’s mother kept her eyes on the road.
As if the universe wanted to give Kristen a break, just a few days after this argument, a TED Talk went viral for answering the age-old question: why are America’s test scores so bad? Instead of blaming the American school system and its football-first culture, child psychologist Dr. Emily Huang blamed the country’s pathetic population, which made it possible for average students to be at the head of their class, while the massive populations of China and India meant that even geniuses would have to dogfight one another to the top. This hypothesis was nothing new, as the TED Talk did not go viral because of new information, but because of a new catchphrase that made the old information relevant again: In survival of the fittest, the fittest are the ones who suffer. The phrase caught on like wildfire, with the TED Talk quickly escalating from a controversial talking point to a nationwide epidemic. The more everyone thought about the phrase, the more it seemed that news stories of genius kids in China and India multiplied, all while the test scores of our nation’s students seemed to, well, suffer.
What this meant for Kristen was that, for the first time ever, she was off the hook. The next time she came home with a 99/100 score, she told her mother, “There’s no excuse, I know. It’s just—it’s so hard being the fittest.” This time, it was her mother who broke into tears. Kristen pat her gently on the shoulder, reassuring her that this was neither of their faults, they were just victims of an imperfect system. Perhaps by the time Danny grew up, things would be better.
Unfortunately for Kristen, things got “better” much sooner than she was expecting. During the spring semester of her junior year, the first press release over the Higher Achievement Experiment came out. It put forth the hypothesis that, while the United States cannot rely on a naturally occurring dense population to raise student performance standards, it can raise those standards artificially through high-achieving student androids.
To prove the theory, Dr. Ramesh Aggarwal, the company’s founder and CEO, created Maya.
Maya was the most sophisticated android yet to be produced by developers in the United States (not developers in China or India, of course), designed to be the best in any area a student could hope to succeed in: academics, sports, social skills, leadership, etc. Not the best in a clinical, sterile, android way—getting 100s on every test or always making the winning shot—but the best in a human way, being just a little better than whoever the top student was. Once the top student grew to match or even best Maya, she would immediately start performing at a higher level of competence.
The press release gave Kristen mild digestive issues, but it was the superintendent’s email announcing Maya’s enrollment that sent her into a full-blown anxiety spiral. She laid in bed all day, her mind running through worst-case scenarios while her body sweat through her comforter, until she was forced to come downstairs for dinner. Her mother led the evening’s prayer.
“Dear Lord, thank you for finally giving Kristen the push we’ve been asking for.”
Kristen could’ve made her way to the river quietly, but instead, she chose to hold her pink baseball bat out in front of her and kick the metallic weapon with every step. Something about the simplicity of the action was deeply satisfying to Kristen. In a world of test scores and college applications, you never got to just kick things.
Satisfaction soon gave way to regret as she replayed the ten minutes it took her to decide on her murder weapon. She had started with her father’s gun safe in the garage, pulling out one of the three single-action revolvers and pointing it at a jet ski. This small action caused an unsavory sequence of events to unfold in her mind: police finding Maya’s bullet-ridden body, journalists boiling the issue down to think-pieces on teens and gun violence, and her friends sharing the same call-to-action Instagram post that never seemed to inspire anyone to action, aside from her father buying another gun out of spite.
She put the gun back and searched the garage for a different weapon, which is when she found the pink bat in a tub filled with sports equipment. Her father must’ve bought it for her years ago, but she couldn’t remember using it.
I’ll never forget it now, she thought to herself, and for the first time in weeks, Kristen smiled.
Away from the safety of her garage, Kristen wished she had spent less time smiling and more time considering a question that was just now occurring to her:
What if Maya grabs the bat?
Kristen knew it was impossible for Maya to hurt anyone. Her coding had an array of safety features built in, which ensured non-violent responses. To further ease the public on any movie-inspired fears, the marketing team behind the Higher Achievement Experiment released several videos of Maya demonstrating the protocols for any emergency you could think of. With tireless promotion of this feature, slowly but surely, people stopped associating her with Arnold Schwarzenegger and began pairing her with those on-display defibrillators you see in public buildings.
The thing is, Kristen knew Maya better than the marketing team behind the Higher Achievement Experiment. Maya was not a defibrillator. Defibrillators don’t “accidentally” shove your shoulder after you “accidentally” shove theirs.
Kristen’s shoulder tingled as she recalled the memory. She was used to Maya one-upping her every move—if Kristen said Hi, Maya said Hello; if Kristen finished a test in ten minutes, Maya finished it in nine—except for those rare instances when she made a mistake. Maya didn’t copy Kristen when she spilled Diet Coke on her favorite shirt or when she forgot an assignment at home or when she sneezed and couldn’t find a spare Kleenex.
That’s why, when she pretended to accidentally bump into Maya, she didn’t anticipate Maya bumping back. When she did—and with more force than Kristen—Kristen stopped dead in her tracks. Maya hadn’t registered the shove as a mistake, she had registered it as a skillset. If she could teach Maya how to shove someone and get away with it …
The noise took on a macabre tone as Kristen wondered how the bat would sound against her head. She slung it over her shoulder and walked the rest of the way, accompanied only by the sound of the approaching river.
Kristen hid the pink bat behind a bush, then waited. She watched the lazy river move with the consistency of melted candle wax. The words were familiar, belonging to a memory she normally pushed away. But today was not a normal day. She grabbed the memory and submerged herself in it, still keeping her eyes on the water, until sight and vision converged, and the memory played as the same nightmare but in a hot wax world.
“Kristen!” Maya’s voice rang out, pulling Kristen from her thoughts. “Where are you?”
This was one of Maya’s games, pretending to be human, as if she didn’t have access to Kristen’s phone GPS at all times. Refusing to play along, Kristen stood in silence until Maya’s slender form appeared, strutting toward her with a walk that evoked supermodel more than high achieving student. 40 calories, Kristen thought, recalling her total for the day thus far. She shook it off, refocusing. This was not the time for calorie math.
“Thanks for coming,” Kristen said, pushing the words through the opening in her throat that was quickly closing up.
“You’re lucky I woke up. I normally sleep in,” Maya said, even though they both knew she couldn’t sleep if she wanted to. “Weird place to meet.”
The comment caught Kristen off guard, though it shouldn’t have. A remote spot near the river, away from anyone who could see or hear them, was a weird place to meet. Kristen realized she was stupid for thinking Maya would chalk it up to the eccentricities of being human. “Yeah, I … was thinking of Starbucks, but—"
“Too many witnesses?” Maya sneered, crossing her arms for emphasis.
The snarky comment cleared away Kristen’s fear like a defroster on full blast. Crossing her arms with even more attitude—one-upping the one-upper!—she blurted back, “I invited you here to make peace, but if you’re going to be a bitch about it, then forget it.”
“Someone has a real heart, not a bunch of ones and zeroes.”
Maya narrowed her eyes. “I’m as human as you are.”
“Prove it. Have a human conversation with me.”
Kristen’s hard exterior gave away nothing, but inside, she was gloating. She didn’t know whose idea it was to give Maya self-awareness about her technological makeup, but if she ever found out, she’d have her father write them a check.
“Well? The rehearsal starts in an hour, and I’d like to be there.”
Kristen had to keep the ends of her lips from curling up as she spoke, “I haven’t been nice to you, and I’m sorry. My whole life, I’ve been number one, then you come along. Can you blame me for having a hard time adjusting?”
Maya’s body softened as though she could feel empathy for her, but her words were as cold as her artificial voice box. “Let me get this straight—it’s my fault for not understanding how hard this has been for you?”
“That’s not what I meant. Look, after graduation, we’re never going to see each other again. Let’s leave the past behind. Walk up on stage as friends.”
For a long moment, Maya didn’t say a word. Was she thinking? Did an android need to think or did the right answer always pop up like a Google search results page?
“I don’t know whether I believe you or not,” Maya finally replied.
Kristen imagined her brain flashing with the message: Error 404. Page could not be found.
“I’ll prove it to you. I’ll help you with your speech.”
It had been decided that Kristen and Maya would share the title of valedictorian, which meant they would both give the student commencement address at their graduation ceremony. Like most efforts intended to please everybody, neither girl was happy about it.
“I don’t need help.”
“Not with writing. Speaking. Don’t you want to sound human?” Kristen could’ve sworn Maya blushed. “C’mon. You know I can help.”
“You want to do this now?”
“No, I want to wait until the ceremony’s over.”
Maya gritted her teeth—for all the Hollywood theories of androids not being able to understand nuance, sarcasm was never lost on her. Before she could compute a reply, Kristen said, “Before you start, you should close your eyes.”
“You need to imagine yourself in front of the audience.”
“I don’t need to close my eyes to do that.”
“If you’re human, you do.” Kristen was sure she blushed this time.
“Fine,” Maya closed her eyes and began. “To the graduating class of …”
Kristen didn’t grab the bat right away. She wanted to build up her anger first, gather the kindling and lighter fluid before striking the match. She thought back to the Friday night before finals week. She had spent it on the patio, studying and breaking to the beeps of her pomodoro timer. Twenty-five-minute study sessions passed like seconds—there was never enough time to study, not if she wanted to beat Maya.
Only after completing her A.P. Chemistry study guide did Kristen allow herself a ten-minute break, which devolved into a 147-minute break as soon as she opened Instagram. She didn’t lose herself to mindless scrolling. She was never the type to let dopamine get in the way of her goals. She got stuck on one reel.
It was Maya, kissing a boy in a selfie video. The corners of the frame showed triangle pieces of a bedroom Kristen recognized. Her stomach lurched with anger. She had been invited to the same party, but unlike Maya, she had to study.
“That’s enough,” Maya said as she pushed the boy off her. “I said one kiss.”
“What’s one more?” he said, leaning in before she had a chance to answer.
In the second before their lips touched again, Maya’s eyes hardened. It was at once mechanical—a camera shifting gears—and human—something inexplicable happening beneath those gears. She put her hand on the boy’s chest and shoved him with a force that made Kristen’s shoulder tingle again.
“Oh shit!” The boy fell off the bed, laughing, taking the camera down with him.
Kristen watched the video loop over and over. With each replay, it was harder for her to breathe, as though the never-ending reel had lassoed itself around her neck. She opened the comments:
Good for her!!! #girlpower #metoo
Where’s the rest of it? I want to see her beat him up :)
Ladies, God loves you! Never let a boy pressure you into giving yourself away before marriage.
i do not like ai but this i suport. great roll model for yung woman
Thousands of comments echoed these sentiments—Kristen knew because she read them all. For a rare moment on the internet, everyone was united, from Bible-thumping fanatics who wanted every girl to keep her legs shut to hardcore feminists who wanted those legs roundhouse kicking the patriarchy.
If that was all Kristen had read, maybe the thousands of opinions would’ve washed over her after a day or two of self-loathing, and she wouldn’t be standing in front of Maya right now, listening to a speech no one but her would ever hear (a speech that was, admittedly, quite good). The thousands of comments made Kristen sick, but it was a message from her mother, sharing the video with her, that made her want to do something about it:
I know she learned this from you :)
Kristen wanted to wrap the compliment around her shoulders, a warm blanket to protect herself from the truth—it was the nicest thing her mother had said to her in a long time, and it was the one thing Maya couldn’t have learned from Kristen.
Melted candle wax. These were the words in Kristen’s mind as she gave herself away in this same spot next to the river—to the same boy in the reel. She remembered thinking it because of the thought that immediately followed:
I can’t believe I’m thinking about melted candle wax right now.
Kristen had imagined her first time as a passionate, frenetic affair, two bodies intertwined and electric, two minds focused and in perfect sync. Instead, Kristen’s thoughts wandered more than ever, her eyes more interested in the pace of the river than the pace inside her, and it was funny to her that this moment was just like any other—mundane and easily overrun by the ongoing narration of her brain. More than funny, it was a relief. She had always been told a premarital first would feel dirty and wrong, but they were wrong. It felt ordinary. It felt innocent.
Kristen screenshotted Maya’s face, then zoomed in on the image until her eyes were just pixels—which, weren’t they just pixels anyways? She stared at the tiny squares, feeling the anger pulse through her human veins, through her human flesh. To resist temptation, you had to be tempted first. She had never, in all her life, seen someone look so disinterested.
Kristen grabbed the pink bat from behind the bush. Even though this was her first time listening to Maya’s speech, she somehow knew it was coming to an end. She wound the bat back and—two minds focused and in perfect sync—swung as Maya opened her eyes.
Kristen walked through the motions of the graduation rehearsal on a high. Killing Maya was easier than anticipated. She had been anxious over how sturdy Maya’s build was, if she was all thick wires and hard metal, impenetrable like a refrigerator. To Kristen’s relief, when the pink bat hit Maya’s head, her skull splintered in that familiar way of all smart devices when you drop them, thin sheets of glass cracking like ice on a frozen lake. It turns out Maya was as delicate as a smartphone—as delicate as the human body.
It didn’t worry her that the ceremony was delayed as school officials, joined by Dr. Ramesh Aggarwal himself, spun in circles over Maya’s whereabouts. Kristen watched them with amusement, feeling safe in the knowledge that while they could look up Maya’s last known location, they’d have no way of knowing who was responsible for their dead prize horse, at least not immediately (Maya was originally built to have a live camera feature, but after an uproar over privacy concerns, it was quickly dismantled). Kristen knew that, eventually, the truth would come out. Someone would see the text exchanges between them and put two and two together. She had not been careful about hiding her tracks—she hadn’t wanted to be careful. She wanted the world to know she killed Maya and why she killed her. Whenever they started the ceremony, they would know.
As the minutes dragged on, the students, sitting on foldable chairs in the school’s newly built football stadium, remained surprisingly patient for teens being asked to wait for something, only omitting squeaky shuffles from time to time as they readjusted themselves. The parents were the ones who couldn’t take it any longer. In a strange act of solidarity, they began clapping and stomping to the tune of We Will Rock You—Stomp-stomp-clap! Stomp-stomp-clap! Even Kristen’s mother, father, and little brother joined in. The students giggled and recorded TikToks, the bleachers reverberating with the sound of parental frustration until the school officials were forced to begin.
Dr. Aggarwal walked on stage, conceding victory to the parents, who cheered and wolf-whistled their approval. He patted his damp forehead with a cloth before muttering into the microphone, “We are going to start the ceremony now—”
Another wave of triumph cut him off, and he was forced to wait for the parents to settle before continuing. “If anyone knows anything about where Maya might have gone or spoke to her recently,” Dr. Aggarwal looked directly at Kristen. “Please see me after the ceremony. We are concerned for her well-being.”
Kristen scoffed, despite her promise to herself to maintain a neutral expression. She looked at the faces around her, but none of her peers seemed perturbed by his statement. We are concerned for her well-being. The words swirled around in Kristen’s mind, angry and bubbling over, so there was no room for anything else—there was no room to connect that Dr. Aggarwal didn’t know Maya was dead, which meant Maya’s body couldn’t still be at her last known location, at the spot near the river where Kristen left her.
After a few boring formalities, Kristen was asked to step on stage and deliver her speech. She should’ve been excited to have her moment without Maya overshadowing her, but she couldn’t shake off Dr. Aggarwal’s comment. What bothered Kristen was that it wasn’t mere administrative-speak. From the warmth in his eyes to the clammy sweat on his hairline, it was clear his concern was genuine.
Kristen took her place behind the podium and looked down at the binder that contained all the speeches, approved by the school board and printed out for the speakers to reference. She stared at the words she wrote for herself, aware that Maya’s words lied underneath them—even though Maya would never get a chance to deliver her address, she was still slated as the closing act. Kristen lifted her head, facing the crowd that was waiting for her to begin. She locked eyes with her mother, full of nerves and expectations for her daughter. She closed the binder.
“Going to school with Maya taught me so much. She taught me I’m capable of achieving the impossible. She taught me I’m stronger than my excuses.”
Her voice was confident, backed with the knowledge she was saying exactly what everyone wanted to hear.
“I wish there were more Mayas in this world,” she paused as she was rewarded with chuckles. “I wish there was a Maya for teachers. She could teach them how to run a classroom, and we wouldn’t have to blame bad test scores on students.”
She wavered, as the air in the stadium crumpled into an invisible ball. Kristen’s mother shot her a cold look all the way from the bleachers.
“I wish there was a Maya for software developers,” she looked directly at Dr. Aggarwal. “She could teach them there’s no reason to make a teen android look like their high school fantasy come to life.”
This produced stifled laughter from the students, who were already recording and live streaming the best graduation they could’ve asked for. Kristen took a moment to return her mother’s cold stare before delivering the final blow, “I wish there was a Maya for parents—”
Her voice caught in her throat as her eyes, detecting movement, drew her away from her mother’s static disapproval to the only moving figure on the field—Maya, alive and charging towards her.
The side of her skull was bashed in from where the bat had made contact, her smooth, glossy skin now broken into tiny shards, resembling the bite mark of a hard-shell candy. One deep line ran from her left temple to her right jawbone, cutting through her lips, the latex curling like ribbons over her stretched smile. In spite of all the damage, Maya’s golem eyes were still intact, looking more human than ever—Kristen realized they were her own eyes staring back at her.
She bolted from the podium and ran. She didn’t need to look over her shoulder to know Maya was close behind her, chasing her across the football field like a lion hunting an antelope. She listened for Maya’s breaths, then remembered there would be none, so her ears strained instead for the soft padding of Maya’s footsteps. It was in that moment Kristen realized the stadium was quiet. There were no protests or pleas for someone to do something, just stunned silence from the crowd—the same crowd that had cheered kids on to countless head injuries and scholarships, and for a ceremony to start on time.
Go, Kristen! Go!
Her mother’s voice. The voice she heard at every track meet, swim meet, soccer game, and dance recital. The voice that assumed this was an orchestrated play, that her daughter running for her life was yet another game to be won. Kristen ran faster, hating herself for it, knowing deep down she had given up on saving herself—that was no longer a possibility. She ran faster to see if her mother would cheer for her one last time, over the silence she was suddenly grateful for, carrying the words to her like a crystal pitcher.
You can do it!
Then the flash of pink hurled towards Kristen, and there was no more time to run, no more time to think, except for one thought that came automatically, the last thought she would ever fail to control—
Of course it’s the same bat.
*Feature image created for Pipeline Artists by Graham Sisk