“Well?” Beth’s brother Jack demands as she returns to the apartment she shares with three generations of her family.
“Well, what?” Beth replies, her long hair swinging over her shoulder as she pads quickly towards her privacy pod, conscious of Jack’s dark eyes boring into the small of her back.
His feet step quickly into the soft imprints left by her own, but he is too slow. Beth breathes a sigh of relief as the apartment sensors quickly detect her entry and just as quickly erect an opaque wall between them. Jack stares into the diffuse light, a small red light pulses in the C-chip at his wrist reminding him that he is not permitted to enter another’s allotted space.
“That’s what you’ve been doing isn’t it? Designing this .. program.. this ChooseLife thing. You have to tell us what to write,” her brother’s voice stabs at the minute particles of light, ricocheting in desperation until they break through in a surge of staccato rage.
Beth stares at her feet and breathes in slowly. She must remain calm. This is just the beginning. The C-chip inserted in her right wrist is vibrating insistently and she taps it with her left index finger to “do not disturb”. She knows what they want. Her brother is not the only one. It is her mother, her father, her cousins, her colleagues, her friends, everyone, anyone – they want “the words”.
But what words does she have? She knows only a fragment of a jigsaw puzzle of 10,000 years of human data fed to an AI program. Were her words useful or discarded as failure? If she uses those words, would she become like the ancient Arabic languages; defunct; a relic of the past?
Calm down Beth! Panic will not help. Beth schools her thoughts, carefully monitoring her breathing until the pounding in her ears ceases. Deviations of heart rate and extreme blood pressure will be noted by her MediBadge and reported. They said it was words but what else was the AI monitoring? It was all data.
Jack’s shadow is visible at the partition, it jitters and shudders erratically as he paces and stomps waiting for her to emerge. She presses the C-chip allowing her slow measured voice to be heard by all in the apartment “I know as much as you Jack. My job was to translate old stuff and input it to a program that’s all.”
“Fuck you” he declares and kicks at the privacy screen. “Faaark” Jack roars as his C-chip emits a sharp pulse into his arm, the second warning. Jack knows the third will immobilise him and summon the apartment warden.
“Jack – what the hell are you doing?” Beth can hear her father’s voice as he pounds down the hall.
“Nothin… now. Beth is one of THEM” Jack roars.
“Come on Jack. You know how it works. Calm down.” Beth’s father reasons in a firm voice. The shadows still and then vanish down the hallway. Beth breathes a quiet sigh of relief and checks her C-chip; twenty messages.
She will have to respond to them somehow, or the next seven days are going to be an avalanche of unwanted attention. She must make it clear she has no magic words. Why don’t they understand? Beth fumes. That was the point of the AI! The human mind is considered incapable of making this decision.
But that will not stop people from asking. Anonymity of the NUN; another of the immutable principles upon which the citizenry relied. It gave them hope and control; any one of them could theoretically be “in-charge”.
Her brother said she was one of THEM – well at least she knew that – SHE wasn’t a member of the NUN. Anyone could be a NUN member and you would not know. Every citizen entered their work pod and logged on each day – no one knew what you were doing. Perhaps her brother was a member and was checking up on her?
“Unlikely,” Beth scoffs. Jack was fascinated with the “Dark”, the “Black market”, those that apparently existed without C-chips and MediBadges. Jack was convinced a whole society existed somewhere in the Dark unfettered by the NUN and its ten principles of humanity. Indeed, he believed they had evolved their own alternate technology and prospered in the Black Market. Unfortunately, for Jack his search for the Dark had only led him to dark alleyways of the mind and frequent visits from medicos to the apartment, concerned at the irregularities in Jack’s brain’s chemistry.
“What the hell do I do now?” Beth groans. Her mind is awash with thoughts that lead her nowhere. She had pounded home from the office in a fury of purpose, perhaps the rapid drumbeat of her feet against the hard pavement would yield an answer, but instead, her feet now mirrored her mind, heavy and aching. Right now she has two choices; go out there and continue the inquisition or hide in here and strategise. Her sharp inquisitive eyes turn towards the soft cocoon of her sleep pod. Who was she kidding? Strategise? Really? She throws her body onto the bed and closes her eyes, perhaps her subconscious mind can strategise, her own is no longer capable.
Bzzz. A soft vibration ripples at her wrist in repetition. Beth checks the clock. It’s after five in the evening, she must have actually slept, her mind exhausted as she searched for possible answers. Her dozy head scratches to check in on her subconscious to see if it had been more successful in a search for the words. Nothing. Clearly it was as exhausted as her conscious one. The C-chip vibrates again to let her know her “do not disturb” setting has been in place for almost four hours and will be overridden to ensure she receives important messages. Absently she taps at her wrist in acknowledgement and is informed that there over seventy messages requiring her response.
Hide is no longer an option. Time to begin the interrogation.
“What do you think of the decree?” her father asks in a slow measured tone. His knife moves methodically against the dull grey of the protein source on this plate. Jack’s nostrils flare in concert with his jaw as he chews, his eyes glancing sporadically between her and each other member of the family.
The knife saws back and forth, cutting the weight of his words and reassembling them with ever-increasing force. He lifts the dull grey remnant of his sculpting and examines it, perhaps checking it has the allotted number of kilojoules or molecule of flavour enhancer and waits for Beth to answer. Five sets of eyes lift from the close inspection of their evening meal and wait.
“I don’t know what to think. I have no idea what will happen.” Beth replies quickly and fills her mouth with a heaped spoonful of roast potato mash, or at least that is what the dish was labelled as. Who really knew what potato tasted like? Certainly not her, the Earth had not produced a potato in over seventy years, let alone considered burning fossil fuel to roast it – preposterous! The edges of Beth’s mouth bulge as she tries desperately to ensure further reply was impossible.
“Do you think they will go through with it?” her grandfather asks, his pallid blue eyes, glazed and hooded as if guarding his own thoughts.
“Of course, they will!” Jack explodes. “The programs – they own us. You can’t shit without them knowing what was in it!”
“Jack!” Grandma Eve splutters. Her thin voice pleading for restraint. “You don’t remember what it was like before AI took over. We were hopeless. The Earth would have been blown apart by now. The rich got more and more and took it all till there was nothing left, and then they wanted more. Tried Mars, tried the moon, no luck, but they just used all we had, everything on this planet trying to have more. There was never enough. AI fixed that, it worked out what was enough.” Grandma Eve wipes her chin with the delicate linen cloth at her side, discarding the distaste of her words.
“Enough? You call this enough!” Jack roars as he stands his hands pounding against the table. “Rations, monitoring, pods, sensors, curfews…. out there,” he points wildly at the one window to their apartment “there are real people, doing real things and I am damn sure they won’t be writing any 100 words. I’m going out. This time, I will find them!” he spits back as he slams the chair solidly into the table.
“Jack!” her mother cries, leaping from her chair to follow him.
“Jen, let him go” her Grandfather speaks slowly, his words soothing and measured. “You know you can’t stop him.”
“But Will! He’ll get caught up with this… Dark Earth.. obsession again .. the madness ..,” she cries, her hands grasp at air as tears stream down her face.
Beth’s father stands, his arm reaches for his wife, the perfect squares of protein now untouched on his plate and turns towards Beth, her jaw now frozen, the lump of roast potato mash a glutinous mass in her constricted throat. “Beth, do you know ANYTHING?” he asks in desperation, his eyes pleading.
Her head shakes furiously in tandem with her brother’s feet as he strides down the hallway and out into the night.
Her mother’s wiry frame slumps to the table and her head falls into her hands. “But what words can we use? What can we possibly write to explain why WE should live and others not?” her mother cries. Tears flow, soaking into the meal before her, now a salty stew of sustenance.