5. Dawn Henry, The Strongest Creative Writing Student
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Announcement
Original Story: "John Henry, Steel Driving Man" (W. T. Blankenship)

Link to original: https://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/early.html

Adaptation Author: jmassat

Find the author here on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jumpformebaby?lang=en

Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Themes of racism, class discrimination, and humans being replaced by machines. May induce paranoia or dissociation in those who are prone to attacks. Active malice and dehumanisation towards an artificial intelligence/robot.

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At first they thought it was a prank. This can’t be our new student. This can’t be how she looks. Hard metal skin with an opal sheen; eyes empty like a doll’s; dark gaps showing her mannequin joints. Her black hair, tied back in braids, did nothing to reassure them that she was the least bit human.

“Let’s give a warm welcome to Helvetica,” said Prof. Finch, their Intermediate Creative Writing teacher.

The class stared. There was an even split between bafflement and delight, six on one side, six on the other; then there were the three odd ones out, whose faces had fallen. Those faces said, “Oh, hell no.”

One of these students was Dawn Henry. The moment that robot set foot in that room, Dawn was calculating, she was strategizing, she was getting her verbal weapons ready. So she had to share a class with a robot? Fine, but they couldn’t make Dawn like her.

Everyone was civil with Helvetica—everyone except for Dawn and her two class friends, who sat on either side of her and shared eye-rolls. The three of them didn’t do anything to Helvetica, but they prepped together, and soon they had their arsenal.

Weeks passed. Helvetica didn’t say much, or do much. Because she was a robot and her face was frozen, it was hard to tell whether she was nervous, naturally shy, or just incompetent.

Finally, it was time to workshop Helvetica’s piece.

“Your description is lovely,” said one student. She smiled big, and her light brown hair seemed to sparkle. “The description of the plane crash is just…I felt like I was there.

One of Dawn’s friends yawned.

“But that description slows the piece down,” said Dawn. She was small but assertive, and when she spoke, she turned heads. “The pacing is off. And that’s true for the whole piece. It’s as if you said, ‘Okay, I’ve devoted three paragraphs to that scene. Now I’ll devote three paragraphs to the next one. That’s how pacing works, right?’”

“You’re going over the line,” said Prof. Finch. He was not an intimidating figure; not just his eyes but his entire body seemed buried beneath his spectacles.

But Dawn kept going. “It’s stiff and artificial, predictably. It’s exactly the type of thing I’d expect you to write.”

Helvetica stared at her.

The professor said, “Dawn—”

“You must think you’re something special just because your story’s twice as long as the rest of the class. Hard work,” Dawn said, waggling her copy of Helvetica’s tale, “is about quality, not quantity.”

“I’m not sure about that,” said Helvetica, even and soft.

Dawn got loud. “You think this is hard work? I’ll show you hard work. Real work.”

“THAT’S ENOUGH!”

An explosive cry shocked her into silence. Prof. Finch had risen from his chair.

“Dawn,” he said, “Helvetica didn’t come to this class just to be insulted.”

Dawn said, “Neither did I.”

When class ended, it was already late enough that the sky was darkening. 5:30 that close to winter will do that. Dawn, Yvette, and Marcus left class together. The campus buildings rose like a maze around them. Ahead, the lone silhouette of Helvetica, still shining and without a coat, turned a corner and disappeared.

“I thought it’d start in the factories first,” said Marcus.

“It did,” said Yvette, “’cept those robots aren’t humanoid.”

“And that just pisses me off more. We’re not a testing ground,” said Dawn. “Our classroom shouldn’t be an experiment for, like…groundbreaking new A.I. or whatever she is.”

Marcus said, “I wanna know how many Black students applied to this class and how many actually got in.”

“Yes!” said Yvette. “Exactly!”

Dawn simmered. The Creative Writing department here was already notorious for letting in low numbers of students of color. How many times had they heard that writing classes were in high demand, that they were full up? That they were capped at fifteen students—no exceptions?

How did administration expect them to act when a sixteenth student, a robot, walked through that door?

“She’s not even alive,” said Marcus. He had said that fifty times this month.

“I kinda wish this happened at Spelman,” said Yvette. “Or any HBCU.”

And they all knew why. Pretty much everyone there would be Black, and everyone equally pissed.

Marcus went off on Helvetica. “How they gonna give a robot box braids and expect us to think she Black?”

“I know!” said Yvette, and everyone had a laugh.

“I can’t. I can’t take this anymore,” he said, shaking his head. “We gotta do something.”

“Like start a revolution,” mumbled Dawn.

“Yes.”

“YES!”

“I was joking,” she said, suddenly bashful.

“No, that’s an actual good idea, Dawn!” said Marcus. “We’ll, like, start a hashtag. Start a movement.”

“I was thinking like an actual uprising,” said Yvette. “Maybe not in the streets, but in the institution. A demonstration on campus. We’ll make signs.”

“Honestly,” said Dawn, “I’m just happy if I get to show that robot up.”

Marcus was bursting with excitement. “We’ll do all of it at once! Social media. Demonstrations. And—oh. I have the perfect idea.”

“What?”

He spread his hands wide: “A competition.”

“What?” she said again, but already she liked the sound of it.

He explained. If Helvetica’s greatest asset was that she was a hard worker, well, they would throw that in her face. Any human could work twice as hard—or at least, produce prose that was twice as good. She was robotic, after all, and so was her writing. A competition would demonstrate that robots could kiss their ass.

They’d stopped to sit on a bench by now, framed by the last of the autumn leaves. “Okay,” said Dawn, “I like that. But how we gonna get her to do it?”

Marcus gave her a funny look. Then he laughed.

“She’s not sentient, Dawn! She’s a robot! We’ll just pull her in!”

Dawn felt a glimmer of guilt.

She could tell that Yvette was on the same fence about this. “If they call it assault,” she said, “we’ll take her to court. It’ll be a landmark case. If they rule in her favor, I don’t think anyone is gonna blame us. They made the first move.”

“They”—of course she meant The Institution, The Man. To what extent did she also mean The Robots? In other words, was Helvetica an enemy, or simply the enemy’s tool?

As the night went on, the glimmer of guilt in her chest grew. Dawn thought that Helvetica should at least have full disclosure, so as her roommate slipped into bed and flicked off the lights, Dawn stared into her phone light on the upper bunk. A friend of a friend of a friend got her the robot’s number.

“Hello,” the texts began. “This is Dawn Henry. I’m the one who got mad at you in class. Tomorrow my classmates and I are going to make you—”

It sounded wrong.

Let’s try that again.

“Tomorrow my classmates and I are staging a competition between me and you. I know it’s short notice.”

Why was she being so polite? (Did robots even need politeness?)

She caved.

“The point of the competition is to show that robots like you shouldn’t be in our writing program. There are so many jobs you could be doing instead.”

She hesitated.

“The whole point of the competition is to embarrass you.”

She hit “send.”

She couldn’t believe she’d hit “send,” couldn’t believe that she’d told her so much.

And Helvetica replied unbelievably fast.

“Actually, I was about to text you asking for a favor. I will come to your competition, but only if first you come somewhere with me. Will you do it?”

Dawn’s forehead heated. That cunning bitch. At least, she must’ve thought she was cunning. Helvetica was so transparent. This “favor” was a strategy, a way to draw her out. To what end, Dawn didn’t know. But anyone could guess that the robot had her own weapons.

The next day was a long one. A rare snow flurry blew through the campus. Frost played on the grass. Dawn went to class, but her mind was elsewhere and her body felt crushed by the weight of the strange revolution yet to come.

Then, at 5:00, she went with Yvette and Marcus at her sides to meet Helvetica for her favor. They weren’t happy with her, were still reeling from her decision to tell the robot anything at all. Bundled in scarves, they hurried to the meeting place behind the museum.

In a hissing whisper, Yvette said, “Why did you—”

“Because I feel guilty! I dunno—I’m sorry—I just—well, she looks like a human.”

They were close enough now that they could see Helvetica by the pink marble brick of the museum’s back entrance, under a blaring light.

Marcus said, bemused, “She doesn’t look ready to fight.”

Dawn shushed him.

“Oh yeah,” he whispered, “super hearing.”

They stopped in front of Helvetica, feet crunching in the thin coat of snow. Snow settled on the red skullcap she didn’t need. Everyone was expressionless.

“I don’t want your friends. Only you.”

Marcus and Yvette walked away without a word. Dawn turned, expecting at least a wave. And she got one, from Marcus, but she wondered if it was sarcastic: Good luck with this madness.

“There’s a presentation upstairs,” the robot said. “I want you to attend.”

“Why?”

The snarky side of Dawn wanted to say, What’s it about, your essential humanity? You think that’ll stop me? I’m in too deep.

“I want you there because you’re brave and you ask good questions.”

Feeling stymied, Dawn followed Helvetica up the stairs. She watched melted snow wick off her fingers and sit on the railing. She watched her hair swish.

They took a back route to the conference room and appeared from behind a curtain, behind the snack table. Helvetica did an immediate U-turn, leaving Dawn alone. Every last folding chair in the room had been filled. Dawn filled a paper plate with cubes of cheese and drifted off to the corner, beside a big window made mirrorlike by the dark.

A slideshow on a huge monitor proclaimed the title of this presentation: “The Living, Learning A.I.: How My ‘Child’ Rejected Manual Labor and Followed Its Dreams.”

The doctor stood at a podium, leaned forward on it, overrelaxed. She had an easy smile and a voice that filled up the room even when it was calm.

“Hi, everyone,” she said after a minute or two. “My name is Dr. Abby Finch, I’m a professor in the Department of Computer Science specializing in advanced robotics, and today I’m gonna talk about what I call a happy accident. Raise your hand if you’ve worked with A.I.” Half of the room. “Raise your hand if you’ve seen A.I. take a totally different direction. Like it’s got a mind of its own.” Most of the hands stayed up. “That’s what I thought,” said Dr. Finch, grinning.

She talked about how her interests in programming and model-making for special effects intertwined, birthing a passion for robotics. How her small team persevered and made some of the most advanced robots around.

The photograph on the screen was blurry and amateur, but Dawn could make out several faces and limbs crowded around a grey metal mannequin. Orange text in the corner read 18 JUNE 1999.

“Here’s where it finally gets interesting,” she said, pausing for an audience laugh. “We made a robot to help around the workshop, and we didn’t intend for it to be anything more than, you know, a pair of extra hands, something that was just advanced enough to entertain visitors. We realized, first of all, that we could use it to entertain ourselves, during breaks. I don’t know how it started, but we’d tell it jokes—no response, naturally—and then, here’s the kicker, it would start to tell jokes back. And some of the jokes,” she said slyly, “were actually funny.

“So here we have this robot whose job is nothing but carrying around our stuff and occasionally inserting a part where it was too tough or too dangerous for a big human hand to fit. Kind of like an apprentice at a print shop. But the robot, who we initially called H.E.L.P.eR., got to the point where it was always telling jokes. And when it wasn’t telling them, it was writing them.”

There was real affection on the doctor’s face.

“Most of us liked it (or, we tolerated it), but someone in the shop got so annoyed, he actually screamed. He said, ‘Why can’t you write something else for once?’ And I think inside, this robot we called H.E.L.P.eR. said, ‘Alright, if that’s what you want, I’ll do it.’ It began to tell more than just jokes. It made poems. It made songs. It made short stories.

“And we realized, damn! This robot is in a workshop! It needs to be out in the world! And not just because it’s annoying us—because it’s got real talent! Potential!”

Unmistakable Helvetica appeared on the screen.

“Now, where do we go from here?” said the doctor. “Well, we’ve decided firstly to socialize the robot, which we’re now calling Helvetica, and get her to stop, you know, telling jokes twenty-four-seven.” She folded her hands and paused for more laughter. “It took longer than you’d think. Second, we decided, we need to see if we can actually get her published. Creativity like this in a robot is unprecedented. We’ve hit a roadblock on both fronts, so we killed two birds with one stone and recently enrolled her in Creative Writing at this very school.

“Third, we’ve started plans to make more of Helvetica. We have a Helvetica in writing, but just imagine Helveticas in all of the arts. Their unique perspective as outsiders looking in at the human experience. We could make a smaller, more limited Helvetica—we’ve drafted the idea, we’re calling it Comic Sans” (lots of laughter) “—and sell it, and anyone could buy an artist-in-residence the same way most people have birdcages. We could democratize art and artists. And their art,” she said, almost as an afterthought, “could become really, really good.”

Soon the presentation came to an end. Gentle, dignified applause filled the room, and the doctor said many “thank yous.” She took questions.

One person asked about robots and care—what do they need? How much, and what kind?

“I considered myself like a parent to a child, and of course that’s not the relationship most people have to their A.I.,” said Dr. Finch. “It’s not really necessary most of the time. But any A.I. that seems to have self-esteem, you’re gonna wanna act warmly with it, as if it really was a child.”

One person asked about the effect of mass-produced robot artists on the economy.

“To be honest,” she said, running a hand through her hair, “I don’t really know, and that’s not my field, so, don’t ask me.” She smiled, and people laughed. “No, there are some economic forecasts out there. We’re never gonna lose, you know, Hemingways, Morrisons, amazing authors who couldn’t possibly have written their novels if they were robots. We’re not gonna lose our jobs—not all of them. It’s competition, not replacement.”

“But competition still entails the loss of some jobs, jobs that could have been taken by people who need them.”

Dr. Finch looked up at Dawn Henry, who had spoken out of turn.

“You can’t throw robots into the workforce and call it apolitical.”

“I never said that,” said Dr. Finch, keeping cool. “And it is political. I’m really in favor of a free market, and the forward march of A.I. in all fields is inevitable.”

“Would you say that making these robots helps people? The people that already exist—does it help them? The people at the bottom of the heap—will it feed them?”

“Oh god.” Dr. Finch rubbed her eyes. “I see what you’re doing.”

“Of all the things you could spend your time doing, you’ve decided to pump out robots and crowd the rest of us out. It started small, but admit it. That’s what you’re doing.” Dawn looked around the room, at all the people between her and the front podium. Good; all eyes were on her, all heads were turned.

“Can you tell us how your inventions will serve existing students?”

Dr. Finch stifled a laugh. “Students in the psychology and engineering departments will benefit greatly from our projects.”

“Would these resources not be better spent elsewhere?”

“Would you rather I disassemble Helvetica? Really? You want me to kill her?”

No!” she cried. “I’m saying that you’ve made enough and it’s time to pull out!”

A hush.

Whispers and worries among the audience. Shaking heads. People rising to leave.

Dr. Finch was no longer hiding her fury well. When she twitched, at last she resembled her brother in Creative Writing.

Just as Dawn began to ask herself what the doctor was to the robot—a mother to a child, a tinker with a toy, a cold chessmaster—Helvetica herself came in, back through the curtain she’d disappeared into.

She ran in. Up through the aisle between window and audience, up to the podium, and as Dr. Finch turned, she kicked, hitting her superior right in the stomach. Dr. Finch buckled, groaning, kneeling onto the floor in seeming slow-motion.

Helvetica shouted, “THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED!”

“Oh no,” said Dawn, hiding her eyes.

Helvetica ran back and stopped in front of her, holding out her hand. But Dawn didn’t budge.

“What’s wrong?”

“Not sure,” said Dawn. “I think I’m just scared.”

It’d taken long enough for the fear to settle on her. All the talk of a battle between her and this machine—a court battle between her and the nation—that was just nervousness without adrenaline. Speaking up to Dr. Finch had been nothing, just the usual. Guards, though, they were stronger and immediate, and two of them now were coming through the doorways.

Dawn saw this and sniffed. “Yeah, let’s move.”

A guard shouted “hey!” and pointed just as they hurtled through the curtains. Dawn and Helvetica heard them shove the snack table out of their way, heard their shoes slapping down the stairs behind them. Hot on their tail.

They bolted into the night and leaped—leaped off a railing into a ditch that used to hold a river. Dawn balled herself up, and while she hit the ground hard, at least she’d saved her head. She heard the cries of the guards above.

She unrolled herself, her back against Helvetica’s.

But they wasted no time here. If they could jump, so could the guards. Dawn grabbed Helvetica’s hand and let her lead them through the woods, where the foliage was just thick enough to hide them. Through little valleys, through snow and muck, across a short wooden bridge—

Back out into the campus, who knew how many minutes later.

Helvetica sat her down on a bench. She could feel her heart in her throat. She didn’t bother dusting herself off, though she knew she must be dripping dirt. Helvetica looked not only dirty, but scuffed—Dawn spotted a dent in her metal just above the wrist. She was missing her skullcap…but somehow she had gained a scarf.

With a willowlike hand, drained, Dawn took the scarf and slowly unwound it from Helvetica’s neck.

“Thank you.” Dawn wrapped it back around herself, never mind the dirt. “Why don’t you sit down too?”

“I don’t need to.”

“I thought you wanted to socialize.”

“No, but that’s their goal for me.”

Still, Helvetica sat down next to her.

Without looking at a phone or a watch, she said, “We only have about ten minutes. We’re close enough that we can rest.”

“All that and you still want to do it?”

Helvetica looked away. “Well…”

“Don’t you hate us? I mean, me and Marcus and Yvette, and anyone else that hates you?”

“I don’t think you hate me. I think you hate the systems of oppression that allowed me to exist in your space.”

Dawn felt intimidated, like she was next to a wildly smart professor. “…I mean…”

A touch of snow was falling, melting in Helvetica’s hair.

Tears came to Dawn’s eyes. “But you know what we were gonna do, right? What they’re still gonna do. They’ll make everyone hate you. They’ll find a way even if I lose…especially if I lose. Then what? They’ll probably tear you apart. And it won’t accomplish anything. And the people on top will laugh.”

Helvetica looked straight ahead while Dawn crumpled, a little, looking down and watching her tears hit her jeans. She couldn’t look after anything more than herself, could she? Herself, her own, her friends…her people…

Helvetica had only ever been sweet, hadn’t she?

“I can’t rip you apart,” she croaked. “I’m still so guilty. I’m sorry. But what can we do?”

She paused.

Then she said, “I’ll commit to you.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ll get to know you. I have no many questions. Like—” she could feel her mood pivot— “why do you have box braids? I thought it was…a strategy…but maybe you like them.”

“I didn’t used to have hair. I saw the braids in a magazine.”

“They look good.”

“Thanks. I mean it. I know it’s hard to tell I do.” She turned to Dawn and moved a hand to her shoulder. The wind blew around them, and time slowed.

A plan occurred to them at the same moment. They were almost out of time, but they still had a chance to work it out and test it. The wind was cold around them, so for now, at least, they came closer.

 

The lunch ladies and cashiers had always liked Dawn. She must have inspired a maternal instinct—it wasn’t just that she was Black like them, but also that she looked so unassuming. At first they might have thought she was lost, that she’d taken a wrong turn into university. Or that she missed the office where she’d get her proper nametag. But eventually they were all proud of her. They’d say, “That’s Dawn, Dawn Henry, gettin’ her degree.”

They didn’t know, necessarily, that there was a robot in Dawn’s Creative Writing class. But they did have an inkling of it. Advances in A.I. were making waves across the country, the world, and pretty soon everybody would know somebody who had been displaced. Newscasters would say that their troubles were exaggerated.

All the Black students on campus knew that something was to happen at 7:06 that night. Some of the other students did too. The word had even spread to the lunch ladies and cashiers. It was happening outside of the cafeteria. The employees would have no way of watching, but they would hear the thunder, the mysterious quiet sending up firework cheers.

That event, of course, was the public initiation of first-year students into the ___ ___ ___ Fraternity Incorporated.

Clumps of students loitered on the pavilion, on grass and concrete, checking the time religiously. If the brothers weren’t out here at 7:06 on the dot, they might never live it down.

Then they came, six in a line, wearing gold masks, led by their superior, still anonymous. As they walked, the word spread among the crowd. They checked the time: 7:06. The cheers started with a single whoop and expanded into the calls of frats and sororities—a few hand signs went up—then they heard a victorious “OH-SIX.”

The crowd, though noisy, politely cleared a space at the base of the stairs. The young brothers in the masks stepped in—

Three renegade students ran up like a sudden burst of pigeons in their collective face, waving their arms, and Marcus yelled, “GET BACK, YOU ICE-COLD BRUTHAS, IT’S GONNA BE HOT TONIGHT!”

Complaints from the crowd were immediate. The new recruits flinched, but otherwise held their ground, their hands behind their backs.

But the renegades were followed by a whole crowd—not nearly as big as the audience, but enough to fill the clearing, to make the crowd yell louder, to smile and wave as the spectators started throwing styrofoam cups.

“SHOUT IF YOU LIKE ROBOTS!” bellowed Yvette, loud even without a microphone.

Nothing about the crowd changed. They shouted, but not about robots. A few were pushing through the audience, ready to pull them away. Or fight.

So that’s when Dawn and Helvetica came out of the flurry to face the crowd. One on either side, standing where the fraternity once had been. Helvetica stoic like she had to be. Dawn conjuring up a feeling of pride, hoping they saw it on her face.

“WE’RE GONNA HAVE A COMPETITION!” Yvette cried. “SHOUT IF YOU THINK THE ROBOT WILL WIN!

The crowd was a little quieter now, rumbling and confused. Dawn could hear a cough.

“THIS ROBOT IS ENROLLED AT OUR SCHOOL. WHEN WE SAW HER COME IN, WE SAID, ‘HELL NO!’ THIS IS WHAT THEY THINK OF US!” she shouted, her hand next to Helvetica’s face. “THIS IS WHAT WE’LL SEE IN ALL OF OUR CLASSROOMS! THEY WON’T HAVE TO GIVE OUT SCHOLARSHIPS IF THEIR STUDENTS DON’T EVEN HAVE TO EAT!”

The volume of the crowd rose. Now they understood.

“DAWN HENRY IS ABOUT TO SHOW THEM WE’RE BETTER THAN THAT!”

“And if I have to, I’ll die,” she said, “with that degree in my hand.”

It rose higher still. A few were even cheering.

Yvette gestured for the robot and the young woman to face each other, and they did. She smiled. She was a great entertainer.

Helvetica offered her hand.

“YES, WHY DON’T YOU TWO SHAKE ON IT?”

Dawn slapped her hand out of the way.

Then she stepped forward and kissed her. Really reached and kissed her, one hand on the back of her head, the other across her back, each head on the other’s shoulder, making the night air warm. They kissed. A baffling sight to some, an exciting future for her.

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