“So why do you think there are fewer women in STEM?”
This was how my admission to Aldwych House began. I’d rehearsed some answers, beforehand. I had them printed on flashcards. Actual cards with actual paper. I laminated them, trimming off every ribbon of transparent film like a jellyfish hangnail. But the moment that door opened for me — opened by itself, before I could even knock — I’d been off my game. And my sense of foreboding only grew as the lights in the hall pointed the way into the grand old sitting room where the interview now took place.
“I think there are a lot of answers to that question,” I said, finally. “I think there are as many reasons for women leaving science and technology fields as there are women leaving. Everyone has stories.”
The other girls nodded to themselves under their hoods. Some of the hoods gleamed with photonic crystal thread. Others appeared to be folded from paper. In the dimness, they looked like a coven of witches. Above, I thought I saw a cherub on the embossed copper ceiling unfurl its wings and settle in, as though it too were listening to our conversation.
“So what’s yours?”
She spoke from the shadows of a wing-backed chair at the edge of the room. Her hood was clone fur. White tiger. Maybe New England meant old money, after all.
“What’s my what?”
“Your story.” She pushed back her hood and shook free a cap of lilac curls. “Why did you leave California?”
“I needed a change. The SilValley culture has infected the feeder labs, and it’s created a toxic learning environment that’s more focused on acquiring VCs than learning the basics.” I tried making eye contact with the other members of the sisterhood. “Besides, this campus is one of the few that facilitates this kind of community. I think tech-savvy sororities are a great idea. I think we’d see more women stay in the field if they had this kind of support, and I think it presents opportunities for future advancement among legacy sisters.”
“We hear that answer a lot.” I couldn’t remember her name. It started with an M. A man’s name. Madison? Morgan? “But this isn’t rush season, and we’re not even supposed to be thinking about taking in someone new. Why did you really leave?”
I looked at the other sisters. They all looked away. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but do you not believe the answer I gave you?”
“No. I don’t.”
I sat back in my chair. The chair wriggled around me. “Well, I’m sorry it wasn’t good enough for you, but it’s the truth.”
“It’s not your truth, though, is it?” Slowly, she wove between sectionals and end tables. The other sisters tucked in their feet as she passed. “We’re a family, here. We’re sisters. We can’t trust you if you can’t share your truth with us.”
They knew. They knew the whole thing. These were the women of Aldwych House. They could doxx anybody.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I was raped. No, no one did anything about it. It went into mediation. Nothing happened. The end.”
“That’s why you’re here?”
“That’s why.” Now I met Mason’s gaze. Her eyes were almost colourless and curiously flat, like they secretly belonged on a fish. She was a beautiful girl by any standard, but her eyes didn’t match her face. They were the one piece missing. “Are we done?”
“Yes.” She beamed, and opened her arms. “Welcome!”
I thought about leaving. They’d invaded my privacy. But they were offering me a place in their house. Aldwych House. Every woman who was any woman in tech had lived under its gabled roof, behind its leaded windows. It was the golden ticket to internships, to capital, to respect. And so I stayed.
They stuck me in the basement. It was an enviable space: my own bathroom with my own shower, the same floor as the laundry room, even a little sitting area complete with futon. The girl who lived there before me had moved out unexpectedly. After I moved in, I finally understood why. It was just as low and dim as any other basement in a heritage Victorian house, but the presence of a root cellar behind the bedroom wall meant that winter’s chill leaked in despite my best efforts.
And then there were the dreams.
In the first dream my mouth was hangover dry. My eyelids gummed together. I felt my throat turn to leather, and then to cobwebs. I felt my cuticles pull back. I could almost hear it happening, the dry withering of my skin, my synapses firing ever more slowly.
Finally I peeled back the covers. They felt stiff with frost. To access the stairs up into the kitchen, I had to pass through the common area. But in the winter darkness of three a.m., I couldn’t find the door.
I leaned heavily against the wall. Its smooth expanse felt warmer than the air of my new space. I ran my arms across it, making a drywall angel. No door. No hinges. No lip of wood. Was there moulding around the door? I couldn’t remember. Maybe it had never been there. Maybe I was wrong. In the rush of moving in, maybe I had seen things differently than they actually were.
Obviously, what I had to do was go outside, and get to the kitchen through the front door.
I shuffled through snow. It clung to my feet. I had slippers, somewhere. In one of the bins. Or a bag. Not on my feet. The narrow strip of concrete between the house and the sagging chain-link fence stood piled thick with snow. It felt light. Like packing peanuts. Finally I understood the Yankee contempt for Californian comfort. I was soft, before. Coddled. That was my problem. That was why everything had happened. Because I was weak.
The house loomed high above the street. Higher, it seemed, than the bare birches and empty maples throwing their supplicant arms to the night sky. A single light burned in the attic. Mason’s room.
I looked down into my trembling hands and saw no keys.
I woke up in bed the next morning, and screamed at the white mounds of pillows that surrounded me.
In the next dream, my bedroom door opened directly into the root cellar. My fingers trailed over brick walls. My toes scraped over earthen floor. It should have been a small room, but in the dream it went on forever, and I kept walking into deeper and deeper darkness until the light from my bedroom door became an arrow-slit in the dusty black. And the longer I walked the closer the walls got, until the bricks scraped my shoulders and the roots tickled my scalp.
Then a hand grabbed mine and pulled it hard.
After that I dreamed that my bathroom door led only to a storage closet. Maybe the house was like clockwork, I thought, and all I had to do was wait for the hour to change and the gears to shift. I lay down in the bathtub and drew the curtain behind me. Sounds echoed up from the drain. Voices. A deep one, and a more lilting one. Chiding, almost. Girlish.
“…all the data!”
“An experiment…” I thought I had kept the thought inside my head, but the shower walls echoed my relief back to me. The voices died.
When I told the other women at Aldwych House about my dreams, they all shrugged. “That happens, sometimes,” a girl called Beth told me. Beth worked at the fabshop. Her hair smelled like burning plastic. “It’s a new house dream,” she said. “Everyone has them, when they move in.”
“I had them, too, when I moved here.” Cheyenne was working on the sustainable engineering degree. “I think it’s because of history of the place.”
“Yeah, just knowing how many other women have started out right here.” Deepa was working on a departmental honours thesis on the use of vagus nerve implants in juvenile diabetes patients. “There’s a legacy to live up to.”
“Like living in a haunted house.” Cheyenne let the statement hang, then followed it with a nervous little giggle when no one agreed.
“Cheyenne thinks the house is haunted.” Deepa rolled her eyes.
“My things kept moving! I’d leave something in one place in my room in the morning, and then it would be clear across the room when I came back.”
“You were taking Adderall.” Deepa got back to work on her motherboard.
“Only to get through finals.” Cheyenne drew her knees to her chest. “I don’t screw around with that kind of thing, any more. I don’t take anything artificial.”
Beth groaned. “Everything’s artificial.” She knocked on the mantlepiece. “This isn’t even real wood. You know that, right? It’s all programmable materials. They had to code it all back in, after the fire.”
“What fire?” I asked.
They turned to me, then back to their projects. “It was a while ago,” Deepa said.
“Where is Mason?” Cheyenne asked.
“Upstairs, in the attic, like usual,” Deepa said. “I’m surprised she even comes downstairs to eat. She has the best room in the whole house.”
“That view.” Beth sounded wistful. “That bay window.”
“She won it fair and square in the hackathon.” Deepa pointed with her soldering pencil. “She used to have your room, you know. The basement. But then she designed the best locking mechanism for the toolshed.”
“A keypad wasn’t good enough?”
As one, the sisters all sighed. “Yeah, if you want your stuff stolen,” Beth said. “Mason’s security system is bioresponsive. It’s…alive.”
“For lack of a better term. Her research is on programmable matter. So of course that’s what it is. Haven’t you gone to the toolshed?”
“My tools are still in California. Most of them, anyway.”
“Well, take a look. See if you can find the door.”
The sisters all snorted. Then they looked up at each other quickly, as though surprised and embarrassed by their shared bitterness. It was like the house itself, I realized. The whole structure made all of them uncomfortable, but none of them were willing to do anything about it.
“In my dream, I saw Mason’s light on.”
Under the coffee table, Cheyenne’s hand closed around my ankle. She squeezed it hard. I glanced at her, but her gaze remained fixed on Deepa’s soldering pencil. It smoked and hissed as it met metal.
“You should take pictures,” Beth said. “Of your room. In case you have that dream, again. So you’ll know exactly what it looks like. Then you can re-assure yourself, when you wake up.”
“That’s what I did,” Deepa said, “when I had those dreams.”
My visit to the toolshed was uneventful. Mostly because I couldn’t actually get in. The building had no doors. No windows. It appeared to be made of wood, but the texture of it was velvet under my fingers. It hummed gently as I ran a hand over it. Haptic. Responsive. Alive. And it didn’t like me. It didn’t want to let me in.
What was she building, in there?
The thing about historic New England universities is they get off on keeping every scrap of paper they’ve ever generated. It’s a sickness. A disease. A compulsion. They simply can’t let anything go.
Which makes it easy to retrieve things like the original blueprints of buildings like Aldwych House.
There was indeed a fire in Aldwych House. The campus paper characterized it as a minor indiscretion gone very wrong — a girl named Gilman, a Bunsen burner, a moment’s inattention. Exhaustion, her parents said. The stress of being a small-town overachiever finally meeting her betters, her classmates said. She took a semester off and never came back.
The fire started in the root cellar. Why Gilman chose to run her experiment there, and not the toolshed, was never explained. But for some reason, she felt secure doing it there. Gilman herself lived in the attic bedroom. The one with the view. The one Mason had taken “fair and square.”
It spread up and out, encompassing the whole basement before licking up into the living room. The stone foundations remained intact, but the wood and plaster went up like a prayer. Only the university’s heritage preservation society — the very one whose little museum, complete with gift shop, hosted my frantic research — could muster the funds from alumni and private donors to create a perfect replica of the lost rooms. One very generous donation came from an alumnus at Nahab, Inc., a design firm born from a thesis project at the university. Mr. Nahab had a double degree — materials science and architecture. His donation to the refurbishing project was to “grow” the rooms back to their former glory.
“We’ve always thought of smart sand as a fix for the robotics space,” Mr. Nahab said, in at the ribbon-cutting. “But given the right feedback mechanism, we can do almost anything with it.”
Nahab’s materials needed a few things. A steady power source. A complete picture of the thing they were building. And constant feedback, to let them know they were finished. You could rig the house to do that, of course — just like rigging the fridge to tell the cupboard it needed new baking soda. But they responded better — more organically — to data from implants. You needed a person there, to patrol the space and read temperature and humidity. You needed the input from their fingers and shoes. Someone to clean up, if the house spontaneously corrupted.
“An angel in the house,” as Nahab described it.
Then he thanked everyone at his company for all their help. Even the interns, who’d helped with the testing and prototyping. Even the single high school senior who’d won a competition for her spot. Her hair was longer then, and a different shade of purple. But I still knew her. Still recognized that smile that never quite met her flat, fishy eyes.
Deepa was wrong. I didn’t need to take pictures. Not with the devices at my disposal. As I told the admissions department in my personal essay, at heart I’ve always been a gadget queen. Girls and their toys, right?
I call them RATS: Re-Active Tactile Systems. I only made up the acronym because the machines ended up looking a little bit like rats: soft little warm bodies covered in delicate sensor fur, stinger tails that sent the charge across whatever material I told them to. Originally, I designed them to sniff out poor signal latency in ambient networks. What they really are is a series of small joybuzzers that detect shifts in electric current in smart materials, and disrupt them.
First I let the RATS out of their box, stroking them to wake them up. Slowly they emerged, sniffing around the basement, tails twitching, fur pointing. They squeaked and chimed to each other as they crawled up and down the walls and along the baseboards. For the first time since joining Aldwych, I slept soundly.
The screeching woke me two hours later. The wall before me was glitched out. It hung, pixellated and half formed, stretching over my bed like a jagged impression of a hand. It smelled like burning sugar, but looked like ancient earth. The rats had it pinned: the wall flickered and so did they, sending sharp little shocks to arrest its growth.
A seam opened in the opposite wall. My ears popped. “You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
Mason stepped through the seam. One of my rats raced up to stop the movement of the wall, and she snatched it in her fist. It buzzed in her hand, tail lashing out.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked. “All I wanted to was to join your fucking sorority! Is this some kind of hazing thing?”
Mason snorted. “Hazing? Bitch, please.” She opened her fist. The rat crawled up her arm. “I just wanted one of these. I knew you’d use them, eventually.”
“You mean it’s why Nahab wants them,” I said. “Right?”
She smirked. “Maybe. But what’s a little corporate espionage between sisters, you know?” She pointed. “You have no business complaining, anyway. Why do you think we admitted you? We didn’t have to. It was fucking January. I’m the one who bumped your application to the top of the pile. Me. The others just wanted to stick to the rules.”
For a moment, my focus faltered. “But… Why were you such a bitch to me in my interview?”
“Covering my tracks, obviously. But Nahab just had to have you.” She watched the rats pulsing along the walls and wrinkled her nose. “Or your research, anyway. Such as it is.”
“What’s he giving you in exchange? Another internship? A job? His dick?”
Mason pouted. “Don’t be vulgar,” she said. “I’m not like that.”
“Oh, no, you’d never sell out the sisterhood for your defence contractor crush.”
She had the grace to blush. “It’s not like that,” she said. “Really.”
I didn’t care how it was, honestly. Whatever awful bargain she’d made was her own business. What I wanted was to distract her somehow. “I would have shared this with you,” I said quickly. “You didn’t have to bully me into it. The code for these is open source. You could have downloaded it yourself.”
“But then I wouldn’t have a working prototype,” she said, watching the rat crawl along her other arm. “I’d have to build one from scratch. And there’s really no reason to do all that work.”
I gestured at the rats to change their pulse. I held them in readiness. We watched each other. She moved, and the walls moved. They sparked. They…rippled. Suddenly the dimensions of the room were changing. This was how she’d done it, how she’d changed the location of the doors. I was the one with the rats, but she was the one designing the maze. She grinned. For once, it reached her lifeless eyes. For a moment I saw a door behind her, a door with a curious shape, a door like none I’d ever seen. And I gestured at the rats again, and the one in Mason’s hand shrieked with power. The air filled with the smell of burning skin.
And then she was on the floor.
The walls began to melt. The floor went slick. I struggled to keep my balance. The floor pooled up around my ankles like quicksand. I jumped on the bed and it sank and I fell to my knees. The sudden charge must have fried Mason’s connection to the house. Whether it was implants or smart skin or whatever, she was the real foundation of the building. And now that foundation was crumbling.
“Help me,” Mason groaned. The floor was swallowing her. The walls jumped back and forth, as though uncertain which era to choose. Doors opened. Doors closed. One moment I saw the stairs to the kitchen, and the next they were obscured behind a thin skin of wall.
“Fuck you,” I said, and leapt for the nearest opening.
You’re probably wondering why I would share all of this with you. After all, I’ve just confessed to a crime. Not a crime anyone can ever prove, but still, a crime. I wish I could tell you it still haunts me, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. I think of her buried under the layers of her own deception and I feel nothing. At least, I feel nothing but good. I feel only relief. It’s the same relief I felt when I realized she was dead.
We always hope that the people who wrong us will be consumed with guilt. That it will follow them every day. That they’ll someday feel shame for having done it, or having gotten away with it. I used to believe that. But now I know differently. Every day, I wake up happy and free. I’m not afraid. I know nothing can hold me back, any longer. Nothing can stop me.
Nothing can stop us. Not unless we let it.
I just want you to know that, if we’re going to be sisters.
After all, it’s important that we share our truth.
About the Author
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. She is the author of the Machine Dynasty series of novels, as well as Company Town, from Tor Books. She also writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She has developed science fiction prototypes for organizations including the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, the Atlantic Council, and others. You can find her at madelineashby.com or on Twitter @MadelineAshby
About the Illustrator
Derek Newman-Stille is a visual artist, writer and PhD student at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies at Trent University. Derek researches Canadian Urban Dark Fantasy and the use of the symbol of the monster for exploring the representation of disability issues. He runs the multi-Aurora-winning website Speculating Canada, and you can view more of his visual art here.