An unwanted gift
The door chimed as I walked into the gas station. The cashier that I always saw there, a frumpy woman with graying hair and a frown turned up the volume on the television as I entered. As if the chime that announced customers entering was a disturbance to her daytime television. As usual, she had the news on.
I hate the news, especially the news on television. Broadcasters and journalists always seem to be playing up what's happening, while driving a wedge further into the divide in our country. Not only that, a news story one day was often found to be untrue the next. And the fight in the eyes and voices of news broadcasters to catch your attention and make you angry always made me sick. I preferred to read my news, ideally, on paper. Which is why I am one of the last people supporting the remaining print newspapers. In fact, mail and the news is the only thing ever delivered to my house, if I need something, I buy it in the store when I’m in town.
This news story caught my attention because it was about something that I’d always hated: drones. Since their massive spike in popularity and adoption, transporting goods and e-commerce sites that deliver right to your door had become more convenient and easy than it ever had been before. The days of waiting a day or more for your package were over. With drones, you could place an order, and depending on how close you were to the nearest facility, receive your delivery in a matter of hours. I hated it. People had already bought into the indulgent lie that you could buy yourself happiness, but there was something sickening to me about placing an order and getting it at your door in an hour. Naturally, most people loved it.
But, in the last several months, there had been problems. The first one was a minor problem: people complained that they received items they never purchased. When enough people came forward, the behemoth at the center of the drone delivery service, Arax, admitted that they were launching a new free service for all of their Supreme members. This new service anticipated customers’ needs and delivered their products before they ordered them. They stated that if a customer didn’t want an item, they could easily return it, free of charge. In addition, every "Supreme" customer would receive a monthly mystery box that contained one or more products to try out, free of charge.
Arax, the e-commerce giant, quickly became a beloved company and dominated the industry. People couldn’t get enough. They felt like they were somehow being rewarded rather than bated and tricked into becoming a dependent consumer with an ever-growing appetite. Even friends of mine that I always thought were skeptical, reasonable people couldn’t help themselves to stocking up on tons of new products that they'd never used before.
Lucky for me, I had little need for “stuff”. Three years ago I published two books. While I didn’t become rich or famous for either, they afforded me some land in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I installed solar panels, small wind turbines, gardens, a greenhouse, a well, and several other amenities that allowed me to be almost completely self-sufficient. Most of the things I wanted or desired I could make or grow myself. Recently, I’d even improved my beer brewing and whiskey distillation to the point where I was very satisfied with the outcome. Although, I still enjoyed the occasional craft beer from a local Vermont brewery.
The lifestyle I cultivated gave me some perspective on the insanity and consumer addiction I saw sweep the nation like nothing before when Arax started its new program.
The first major problem began when representatives of Arax started lobbying to deregulate every type of product imaginable. They were pushing a libertarian agenda of sorts, but one that was framed in such a way that masses of people from both sides of the aisle supported it. Their new slogan, “It’s your right to make choices, and it’s our duty to anticipate them”, began as they started making headway in American legislation. Politicians began to bend over backward for the company as it lined their pockets. Not only were all drugs legalized and easily available for every consumer, but guns were deregulated and soon they were being shipped straight to people’s doors.
The second problem began when they started buying more of our data. Most people didn’t catch on until a year later when an investigative report from a notable news organization published their piece on how the company was buying every bit of data and using it to exploit our desires and lead us to more consumption. Many people didn’t mind, they figured Arax was making their lives better and knew that companies had been using their data for decades, so who really cared?
The third problem began when the company released its new AI and started expanding into new territories across the globe. No longer were drones a feature of rich, developed countries, but even the poorest nations could afford drone delivery. Arax's expansion into new territories caused some local economies to collapse and local manufacturing and transport companies went out of business. Lucky for them, Arax was always hiring.
The fourth and last problem was a big one. Nobody truly understood the advancement of Arax’s AI technology. The AI, the nervous system of the corporation, had become self-sufficient. Programmers and maintenance teams weren’t needed to run it, and Arax had banned any people from entering the facilities that housed its main servers in a discreet location in the U.S.
It wasn’t until Arax began delivering books, pamphlets, and sending people digital ebooks and op-eds on ideologies that matched their own beliefs that people around the world started sounding the alarm. What followed were arguments in every statehouse in practically every country, but little was done. Tensions across the globe had already been building and people and governments were sick and tired of their oppression and manipulation like pawns on a chess board, but many of them didn’t blame Arax, they blamed their governments.
That’s when the weapons production spiked and people who were gathering support for civil war were delivered weapons and gear in mass. Civil wars broke out everywhere, and governments that were overwhelmed with holding power and suppressing the rebellions found it difficult to simultaneously shut down the Arax facilities. Arax began selling medicine to both sides and the company made a fortune.
Some countries found new leadership in the wake of the civil war. While the U.S. government did change, its democracy stayed mostly intact. Now, after indicting Arax with treason, amongst many other criminal and capital crimes, the government was also banning all drones.
The television screen showed the House floor where all members from both parties had voted to ban all drone delivery services and any other delivery services that used AI to anticipate consumers’ needs.
With a sigh of relief, I watched those numbers, “Yea: 435”, flash across the screen, before I handed the clerk my card and exited the gas station.
The following week I spent everyday disconnected from the outside world. I had been trying to finish a book I was working on for some time, and I decided I’d pull out my router and write without any distractions.
In the mornings I’d wake up early and take a short walk along my property, enjoying the quiet company of the spruce, fir, and maple trees. It was another crisp November morning on my sixth day since I unplugged. The cold, dry air brought me back to my senses and woke up my sleepy mind. Then, I went inside, made myself some green tea, and worked away at my computer until lunch.
When I was too hungry to continue working, I walked outside to the chicken coop and greeted my chickens. Henny Penny and Golden Nugget had each just laid an egg and were enjoying the afternoon sun by splaying out their feathers and soaking in the vitamin d. They’d started molting weeks ago and while I didn’t get as many eggs as I usually did, my six chickens gave me two to three eggs each day. I could tell it was Henny Penny and Golden Nugget’s eggs because each of the chickens laid different eggs.
Oprah’s egg was the most obvious. Aptly named the Easter Egger, Oprah laid turquoise blue eggs. The other five chickens all laid brown eggs, but Henny Penny’s were always tall and skinny, and Golden Nugget’s were short and round, almost like a ball. After thanking the chickens, I went back inside and fried up the fresh eggs with some black beans and hash browns, making sure to drown everything in hot sauce. My full stomach made me tired and even the intense heat from the hot sauce wasn’t enough to keep me alert, so I took a short nap.
The rest of the day I spent finishing the end of my story. I was very content regarding where the story had finally brought me. It was unexpected, yet made sense. I was proud of it and figured my readers would enjoy it too.
Feeling accomplished and wishing to celebrate by my lonesome, I cooked up a big dinner and washed it down with a saison that I’d been waiting for a special occasion to drink. Saisons are my favorite kind of beer. I usually wasn’t the kind of person to spend $10 on a single bottle like this one, but I’d definitely learned to spoil myself, and I knew my tastebuds would thank me.
Enjoying my buzz and a full belly, I wandered outside with a cigar and decided to breathe in the fresh air while I smoked. As I puffed on the warm smoke, I tilted my head slowly up and enjoyed the bright stars.
Wow, the stars are magnificent tonight! I can’t believe it, I thought. The stars from my house that was tucked away in the vast forests of northwest Vermont always had great stars, but what I saw that night was significantly better than anything I'd seen prior. On good nights I could see the subtle stroke of the milky way across the sky, like a pen that had just run out of ink leaving a faded stroke in its wake. But tonight what I saw was very different. The arm of the milky way was thick with stars I’d never seen before. In fact, I didn’t think I’d ever seen stars this clear, even on my hiking trips in the lower rockies of New Mexico, where there wasn’t a single town or city in any direction for a couple hundred miles.
I’m not sure how long I stared at the sky. But what started as pure awe turned sour. Something felt off, strange even, as if what I was seeing shouldn’t be. I rushed inside and plugged my router back in, but I couldn’t reconnect to the internet. I turned my cellular data on my phone back on, but even then I couldn’t get a signal. Confused and frightened, I stood still for a moment, trying to make sense of everything. From outside I could hear a whirring sound disturbing the silence of my home.
I rushed towards my gun safe in my living room, afraid that the end of the world had finally come. I removed my .44 and ran to the door. The sound was louder now. I opened the door an inch so I could peer out. I saw the blue and white of an Arax drone hovering above the steps.
I raised my gun and opened the door shouting, “I didn’t order anything, get out of here!”
The drone responded in one of those over-friendly, robotic voices: “Hello, Mr. Conan. Arax welcomes you to the new world! I see you’re alive and well. We apologize for any inconveniences this transition has caused. It’s your right to make choices, and it’s our right to anticipate them. Enjoy!”, the drone said. It dropped a white and blue box on the door mat before turning and flying away.
I shut the door and cracked opened another beer. That night I didn’t taste the beer as I sipped it, I merely consumed it. Part of my mind thought that I was dreaming, the other part couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Two other parts fought over whether I should open the box or burn it. I fell asleep on my couch, drunk.
When I woke the next morning I contemplated the box again. What if by opening it and accepting their box, I somehow subscribed to their services? But don’t you have to be a paying member to subscribe? The curiosity got to the better of me and I opened my front door and grabbed the box.
Inside were a variety of objects. Camping gear, I thought at first. Iodine tablets for cleaning water, matches, a pocket knife, one can of beans, a couple feet of rope, and two pamphlets. One was titled: Arax Survival Guide. The other read: Instructions and Information For the New World. I removed everything from the box and noticed that a small white pill that was wrapped in plastic and metal foil remained at the bottom. One one side of the packaging, in small letters, it read: “This pill is for anyone who does not wish to transition to the new world Arax is building. By not taking this pill, you hereby accept to abide by all terms & conditions set forth by Arax.”
I threw the pill back in the box and sat down on my hard, wooden floor, placing my wet face into my cold, sweaty hands.