New Words

Author: Stephen Murtough

The blank screen became the words: Jasmine loved Jonathan more than he loved her.

Thirty children were seated in individual booths with individual screens, and they each answered by pressing one of two buttons. Twenty-eight were correct. The other two were led out of the examination room.

New words appeared: Jasmine and Jonathan knew each other from long ago, and once, they’d loved each other. Eventually, Jonathan realised he loved Katie instead.

As before, the children answered quickly. Four children, who were all very young and were expected to fail the test, were escorted out of their booths, leaving twenty-four remaining. The examiners stood silently behind the booths.

Without delay, statement three appeared: Jonathan had known from the start that Jasmine wasn’t right. She was too introverted, too quiet, too happy to sit indoors and read a book. Nonetheless, she was there, and Katie never seemed interested until the Xmas party. He didn’t regret that evening one jot.

This time, as the examiners expected, the children took longer to answer. They read and re-read the statement and studied the statement’s structure and intricacies, trying to decipher what could have written the statement. The examiners paced, twiddling thumbs in pockets, and some shared looks and suppressed smiles. Eventually, the answers were submitted, and nine children were removed from the test.

Statement four arrived: Jasmine hadn’t had much luck with relationships. She admitted, when alone, that she wasn’t much of a catch. Boring came to mind. Inconsequential useless human. When she met Jonathan and he agreed to her suggestion to go for a drink, even if it had been a joke, she opened her eyes to the possibility: just maybe I am worthy, just maybe I am a catch. When Jonathan didn’t return home that December night, when he didn’t return her calls the following day, and when he sat her down and told her what had happened without ever taking off his jacket, it broke her. Just what do I owe, she wrote that final evening, the pleasure of being so meaningless.

The fifteen remaining children stared at the screen for over five minutes. Their pupils dashed left to right to left, and their hands hovered over their two choices: ‘Human’ or ‘Machine’. One child answered and their booth blacked out: incorrect. The examiners shifted their feet furtively. Another answered and was instantly led out of the room, and then a third, fourth, fifth, until just two remained studying the statement. They answered ‘Human’.

Instantly, statement five appeared: Just last week, Jonathan, you said you love me. What happened?

The two children paused, hesitated, then answered simultaneously. The examiners stepped forward to remove one of the children from the room, whilst the other remained with their hand pressed on their choice. An examiner looked over the child’s shoulder at the correct answer: ‘Machine’.

Holographic fireworks fizzed and the winning child was escorted to the celebration room. A speech was made about technological and educational advancements. Whilst the child’s supervisor schmoozed with other guests, an examiner asked the child how they’d known the final correct answer. I didn’t, replied the child. Lucky guess, they said.

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