Skinner Box

By Carole Johnstone

I didn’t always fantasise about killing him. I used to fantasise about fucking him, and when that lived up to expectations, I fantasised about marrying him. Which didn’t.

I’m a scientist. I’m supposed to look at problems clinically, rationally, dispassionately. Maybe he beat a small but vital part of that out of me, and enough electrons escaped the open circuit to forever unbalance me, to leave an empty space where nothing that was once me lives. And I’ve plugged that hole with fantasies. Fantasies of walking into the path lab and seeing him sprawled over one of his precious anaerobic chambers, face purple and bloated and stricken. Or red-raw and boiling inside scalding clouds of autoclave steam. Or bloody and blasted black, inside and out, because any vessel required to withstand high pressures can rupture; any number of things inside a vacuum can implode; centrifuge rotors can explode, and path labs are filled with the kind of chemicals that never should. Or sometimes, I just imagine him lying on the floor, the back of his skull caved in like eggshell, spilling blood and brains and cerebrospinal fluid. I’ve never been fussy. Perhaps I should have been.

My module is about a fifth the size of his. I enjoy its hugely claustrophobic smallness—small enough for only me, a chair, my laptop, and the Skinner box. Here is where I live, rather than the brilliantly austere labs or Engineering’s myriad compartments and old-school clutter. Or even the living quarters, designed, I’ve always suspected, by a man with a won’t-quit hard-on for ’80s sci-fi horror: no corner spared its curve, no straight edge its roll, no rectangle its oval. Not clinically white, but a kind of dull, matte off-cream that makes my skin pucker. In here, the walls are black and the light is low. There are no windows. There is no outside. There is no there.


I never want the coffee that Mas always brings me, never drink it. But he always brings it anyway.

“Hey. Thanks.”

“How is it going?”

I look at the Skinner box. “It’s not.”

“They didn’t take the bait?” He comes closer. When we stand side by side in front of it, our shoulders touch the walls, touch each other.

“No. They didn’t.”

He turns to look at me instead. His smile is crooked. “So you’re gonna have to torture them after all, huh?”

I don’t answer, but my chest feels tight, my palms prickle. I want to be annoyed, but I can’t be. He’s right. It’s that simple.

“How was he last night?”

I swallow, keep looking at the Skinner box’s windows, its locks, its cue lights. “Fine.”

Mas’s big hand turns my face towards his. He strokes two fingers over my eyebrow, one over the still-puffy tissue around my orbital bone, the yellow and green of its fading bruise.

“Fine is good, Evie,” he says, but he isn’t smiling. “Fine is better.”

In this tiny space, he shouldn’t be able to crowd me any more than he already is, but he can, he does. He turns us away from the Skinner box, puts one hand on my waist, smooths the other through my hair. Backs me up against one black wall.

I can see red threads through the white of his eyes. I can smell the clean grassy sweat of him, the coffee on his breath. I can feel the heat of him, the prickle of his stubble against my neck, the hard, long press of him against my thigh. I can feel my own heartbeat at my temples, my fingers, inside my ears.

“This is a bad idea, Mas. We shouldn’t.”

I always say it, and I never mean it. But I always say it anyway.

The three of us have dinner together. It’s just one of many rules, arbitrary and mandatory. We sit in our replica off-cream Nostromo and eat whatever our blood workups have determined we should.

“So where are we today, Professor?” Mas says, his voice too loud, too decided upon cheerful. It startles me a little, makes me think of long-limbed, white-faced, serious Boris. Mas is his replacement.

Don looks up from his tray. Arches one brow. “We’re at four point one seven AU, Masego.” Arches both to better effect. “We’ll be passing very close to Jupiter’s two outer moons, Callisto and Ganymede, later on tonight.”

Halfway. Finally, halfway. Five months, four weeks, two days. By tomorrow, we’ll have swung by Jupiter, and the gravitational assist with the last of our fuel will turn us back for home. That should make me feel better. But it doesn’t.

Mas grins with all his teeth. “Is that something we are supposed to be worried about?” He puts on his accent for me. Especially in front of Don, who sounds like a 1950s radio announcer. I haven’t seen Scotland, and Mas hasn’t seen Zimbabwe, for years. He does it to comfort, I think. To tether me to something other than this bloody place and this bloody life.

“You’re the engineer,” Don says, managing to make it sound janitorial.

“Yeah,” Mas laughs. Tries and fails to wink at me without Don seeing. “How many engineers you know look up at the stars?”

I eat so I don’t have to laugh. Smile. Talk.

I shouldn’t think about Boris. I can’t. Boris was the last mission. This is the new one.

We still share a bed, Don and I. We’re still husband and wife. Our quarters are our quarters; there has never been any space here for changing your mind, for saying I’ve had enough. A vow is a vow. A contract is a contract.

He last raped me in this bed more than three months ago. Three months, three weeks, and three days ago. Nights ago. It wasn’t rape to him. It was another mandatory obligation that he put a halt to halfway through to look down at me, down at us, with the same mild disgust that he reserves for low blood counts, Clostridium difficile, and high viral loads. I don’t think there’s been a single moment in our relationship that I haven’t felt like a bug on a slide. I used to find it flattering.

Rape isn’t enough for him now. He finds more pleasure in pain that he can better imagine. In pain that he can see. Don has no hidden depths. He’s as predictable as a response lever triggering food, as a fruit fly conditioned never to return to a hot side that has long ceased being hot.

He likes to choke and he likes pinch, to scratch. But mostly, he likes to punch. Maybe it makes him feel more like a man. And me less like a woman. I’ve never cared enough to wonder, even though that’s my profession, my vocation. I’ve never, ever had any urge to study Don like a bug on a slide.

Tonight, he lets me off the hook. Tonight, we wash, brush our teeth, undress, and get into bed, and not once does he speak to me, acknowledge me, even look at me. I used to think that was just another punishment, but now I know it’s not. On these nights, I really don’t exist. To him, I am negative space. I am invisible. I am a black hole. And that suits me just fine.

Other than the Nostromo, it doesn’t look like a spaceship, nor should it. Millions, I suspect, have been spent on aesthetic alone. Carbon composite nanotube walls and floors of grass. The long corridors are lined with bubbling tubes of algae and tanks of recycling water. They sound like fast streams, hot springs. There. Anywhere else but here.

Some days, I just walk along those corridors. Back and forth, around and around. Listening to the air, the water, the slow and steady thud of my heart.

It’s a house of many mansions—or, at least, of many doors. Almost all of them are locked. I’ve never tried them more than once. I’ve never wondered what’s behind them more than once. Which, if I cared, is probably the most palpable metaphor for my entire life. Sad and bad and indifferent. Too many locked doors to bother counting. To bother imagining.


“Hey. Thanks.”

I set down the coffee, turn around and press my palms against his pecs. Push him hard until he grins, until he moves. He leans back against the wall and lets me kiss him, lets me go on pushing him just to push him, to feel him, to feel something. He doesn’t need to turn us around; he doesn’t need to make me stop. He just lifts me up and pushes back. He fucks me inside that tiny free space between four black walls. Between a chair, my laptop, and the Skinner box. And when he starts to shake, I know it’s not from weakness. Or even exertion. Don can’t even slap me without breaking into an ugly sweat.

Afterwards, he does turn me around. Stands behind me, his big hands clasped around my waist, his chin on my shoulder.

“Tell me more about it,” he says. “Your Skinner box.”

He’s asked me before, but I’ve always managed to distract him. Now, he knows I can’t. Not yet, at least.

“You really want to know about this?”

“I really want to know about this.”

“All right.” I straighten my spine as we both look at its windows, locks, and cue lights. Mas strokes my forearms slow and careful, like I’m a feral cat.

“I guess you already know that a Skinner box is just an enclosed space to better deliver and monitor positive and negative conditioning. Reward and punishment. At its most basic, it’s a rat in a cage, pressing an operandum lever whenever a light goes green. He does it right, he gets food. He does it wrong, he gets electrocuted. The expectation of desire to eat the food or the fear of being electrocuted is unconditioned stimuli. But when the rat starts associating the lever or the green light with either expectation, that’s conditioned stimuli. We’ve taught him that. Made him think that. Made him expect that. We’ve rewired his brain.”

“Right.” I can feel the teeth of his grin against my neck, his nose in my hair. “Kind of like me getting a hard-on every time I smell strawberries. Or blue balls every time I hear the fucking swish of that path lab door.”

When I smile, he laughs. It rumbles through me, gives me goose bumps.

He points at the box. “And it’s the same principle for the nano—”

“Nanites. Yes.”

He presses harder against me to peer even closer, his nose almost touching the glass. “And they’re still in there?”

I smile at the wary doubt in his voice. “A whole swarm of them.”

He laughs again. “Right.”

“These ones are big boys. Ten micrometres. Zero point zero one of a millimetre.”

“But what’s the point? I mean, what does a nanite want? What is a nanite scared of?”

I take in a breath that tightens his hold on me.

“A nanite wants to learn. Same as anyone. I’m just trying to find out which way gives them more learning potential, more agency. Reward or punishment.” I shake my head. “And so far, my reward programs haven’t made any difference.”

“Which is why you’re going to punish them instead?” He strokes me from my crown to the base of my spine. “How the hell do you punish a nanite?”

A Skinner box doesn’t have to be a torture chamber. Not unless you’ve exhausted its every other function. And yet, it’s surprising just how often it is.

I shiver, disguise it inside a shrug. “I don’t know yet.”

“So, where are we today, Professor?”

Don snorts, sets down his cutlery. “You know, recently I’ve been wondering just what your problem is, Masego. A limited imagination, vocabulary, or IQ?”

Mas grins with all his teeth. “I just want to know how much longer I’m going to have to look at your ugly mug, man.”

“We’re at two point eight five AU,” I say. “About halfway between Jupiter and Ceres.” I risk looking at him. “Nowhere.”

Mas looks back. “No point getting my Polaroid out then, huh?” he says.

He’s pissed off tonight, and I don’t blame him, but it doesn’t help. It doesn’t even matter. I’ve no reason not to believe it’ll be just like last time. We’ll be stuck here, the three of us, for at least another four months, pissed off or not.

My mother used to say that it was the journey that was important, and not the destination. I never thought she was right. But the suits from Astro Labs do. And I might be flattered by Mas’s interest in my research, but that’s only ego, my ridiculous need for him to see me. In reality, it’s all just busywork. No different to Don’s biotech experiments or Mas running his endless simulations. Our work is not the mission. The destination is not the mission. My mission. I’ve always known that. And after the last one, I swore no more. Never again. Yet here I am. Here Don is. Here we both are. Just the same. Again.

I know why. If the reward is big enough, wanted or needed enough, a rat will endure pain past the point of recovery. Of sense. And that’s obvious why too. All life, after all, is just pushing levers and hoping.

It’s worse—so much worse—when he’s kind. Gentle. Tender. Tonight, Don brushes my hair with long, slow strokes until it feels as though I’m floating. His apologies drift around me like spring blossoms, cool and white. He talks about our wedding day: the ocean and big blue bowl of sky. The hydrangeas and pearl beads in my hair. How much his voice shook through the vows; how badly his skin itched. But it’s only when I cry that he smiles. That he kisses me. And I never know if he means what he says or if it’s just more cruelty.

I wait until he’s sleeping, and then I go out into the corridor, walk barefoot through the grass and bubbling springs. I stop outside Boris’s door, press my hot palms and forehead against its coolness. And then I sit cross-legged on the grass, with my back against the door, and sleep there until morning.


“Hey. Thanks.” I set the coffee down on the shelf beside the Skinner box.

Mas tries to kiss me, but I don’t let him. As much for his sake as mine. Since slingshotting around Jupiter, I’ve been trying to keep my own distance, my own counsel. I know he doesn’t like it, but when there aren’t many ways to avoid someone inside less than an acre, aloofness is about the only option. Maybe it’s because we’ve stolen enough of Jupiter’s velocity that it feels like we’re sprinting now instead of jogging, and I’m finding it harder to catch my breath. Maybe it’s because we’re that much nearer the end of the mission. Home looms larger, is ominously closer.

“Don’t you have anything else you should be doing?”

Mas shrugs. “I’m running fuel calculations. Orbital mechanics simulations. Same as I do every other day.” He gives up trying to make me look at him, looks at the Skinner box instead.

“Tell me about the harder stuff then. What the fuck you’re doing here. Why the fuck you’re doing it.”


“I’m in here every day, and I don’t really have much of a clue about any of it, and”— when he rubs his palm down my back, he does catch my gaze, and keeps hold of it—“I’m interested.”

We’re running out of time, is what he really means. To learn—to know—all there is to learn and know about each other. It’s exactly why I shouldn’t tell him.

“You really want to know about this?”

“Sure.” He grins, holds up his hands. “Hey, look, I get that you’re the cognitive neuroscientist, and I’m just the guy in charge of the dilithium crystals. Use small words, and I’m sure I’ll pick it up.”

“Sorry.” I smile. “Okay. So, the first paradigm shift in AI—” I laugh when he grimaces in mock terror, and it feels strange, alien, like it’s the first time I’ve done it in a very long time. Maybe it is.

“The first paradigm shift in AI was designing deep learning architecture like neural networks. And the second was getting the neural network to design its own architectures without us.” I hit a key on the laptop to light up its screen. “So we now have a recurrent neural network, which is the controller; it proposes a new learning architecture for another neural network, the child network, to follow. The child network feeds back to the controller, which updates its decision-making process before delivering its next proposition. It’s basic behavioural psychology. Reinforcement learning: using feedback or reward for training purposes.

“Reduction cells mean that a much smaller dataset can be used to design larger datasets, but any further progress has ground to a halt for years—there wasn’t much anyone could do without large-scale cluster management.”

“Large-scale what?”

“Really fucking big computers. Faster chips.”

“And we don’t have them?”

“Oh, someone does. Google, Nvidia, Intel, Graphcore, a whole bunch of folk. Probably even Astro. Just not me. I’ve got a laptop and a Skinner box.”

Mas moves closer. When his fingers brush against mine, I don’t move away. He peers into the Skinner box.

“So these guys—”

“The nanites.”

“Right, the nanites. They’re the kids?”

“The child network, right.”

“Like mini-robots.”

“Bots are just automated programs. They mostly replicate what we can already do, so we don’t have to do it.” I look at the pull of his shirt between his broad shoulders and only just manage not to press my palm against it. “Conventional bots are ones and zeros. Nanites are built from DNA.”

He turns. “That’s Don’s field.”

I step back. “Among other things.”

“And this neural network allows them to learn?”

“Sure. It’s the closest learning architecture to biological neural networks in humans. When you’re a baby, different regions of the brain connect to each other in a specific sequence, layer by layer, until the whole brain is mature. Deep learning neural networks do the same thing. It means the nanites can get progressively cleverer without task-specific programming.”

“To do what?”

I shrug. “We’re already using nanotechnology as the silver bullet to fight cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. We can program a swarm to find, target, and kill diseased cells. We’re starting to use scout swarms to identify them before they become diseased cells. But we could do so much more than that. We could link human brains to the cloud via nanites made of AI programs and DNA strands. We could stop ageing, stop illness, expand our neocortex ten thousand–fold.”

He gives me the crooked grin again. “But?”

“The best we’ve managed so far are kludges.”

“What the fuck are kludges?”

“Workarounds. Clumsy, difficult to extend, impossible to maintain. The AI isn’t good enough yet. Hardware or software. Bio-evolution requires one-shot learning. Means no more massive, data-heavy learning algorithms, no more cluster analysis, no more us. An unsupervised machine learning model with a continuously learning AI program. When someone works out how to do that, that’ll be the singularity. Transhumanism.”

“Transhumanism? All sounds a bit fucking Skynet to me.”

I smile. Pretend that I don’t feel sad and bad. Pretend that my goose bumps are only because of the press of his weight behind me, the stroke of his fingers against my skin, and not because he’s the first person to listen to me, to give any kind of shit about what I have to say, about what I think, since Boris. “That’s the plan.”

“That’s what you’re trying to do?”

“With a laptop and an old-school Skinner box?” I shake my head, dilute my sarcasm with a smile. “I’m more interested in the small stuff, the stuff that they always miss, don’t want to sweat; the whole Martians-being-killed-off-by-the-common-cold shtick. Faults, glitches, potential bugs. AI interfaces can be hacked, but I want to know if you can interrupt the deep learning sequence. If you can change it, corrupt it.” I look back into the Skinner box. “I want to know if you can do it through behavioural manipulation and conditional stimuli.”

“And you can?”

I turn around, look at his eyes, the wide bridge of his nose, his lips, his teeth, his jawline. It’s a question he’s certain I will know the answer to. If not today, then one day. It makes my face grow hot. It makes my heart beat faster. It makes me want him to touch me. Even though I don’t want him to touch me. Even though I know he will anyway.

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