The Wrong Answer

A Loose Continuation of 'For We Are Young and Free'

The Wrong Answer
Image by TheDigitalArtist at Pixabay

The paper says ‘full communism,’ just like every other piece of paper printed out before it. In the control room, in response to a thought-command from me, the lead technician jabs the button for recalculation again, and again, and again…

‘Full communism.’

‘Full communism.’

‘Full communism.’

My champagne is going flat.

“Three times,” Winston Raymond shouts, shouldering his way out of the assembled crowd of shareholders and pulling Auburn Miller roughly by the hand. They wince.

“Three times!” Winston says.

He releases Miller then tugs at top of his plastic party hat. He pulls it off and stomps it on the ground. My frozen smile inverts into a grimace. It’s like he’s stomping on my heart.

“Three times you’ve asked us here and three times your computer could not find the answer,” he leans in close and jabs his stubby finger on my chest. The auto-turrets follow him anxiously, but I wave them away.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I say. “Our data’s right, but it’s coming to the wrong conclusion.”

“Why won’t you tell us what the conclusion actually is?” Miller asks, fluttering their trademark tentacle lashes. “How do we even know it’s wrong?”

I hold up a piece of paper and everybody gasps.

“It can’t be,” Miller says.

Winston snatches it away.

“Does that say full communism?” he says, and zooms in with his bionic eyes.

“Full communism, full communism, full communism,” I drain my wine. “The same thing every time.”

“But that’s some kind of internet joke, isn’t it?” Miller says and folds their arms. “I remember learning about it in modern history.”

“It was one of those Marxist memes from the early part of the century,” Winston says. “They were popular amongst the waster class before the US revolution.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Miller says. “How could memes be the solution to poverty in Australia?”

I look into the bottom of my empty glass. It shakes.

“The computer wants us to try communism, same as the United States,” Winston scoffs. “Huh. It took them twenty years to figure out the plumbing.”

He downs his wine in a single gulp then plods over to the buffet table to pour another glass. I bury my head in my hands and sigh. We’d tried out every possible combination of data and qualifiers, and it was the only answer the computer ever gave. The only angle that we haven’t tried would be to change the facts, and that would make the shareholders even angrier. The company can’t sell a model that doesn’t function in reality. Functional solutions would be finished overnight.

“Your mother could have solved the problem,” Miller says. “Your mother was a visionary.”

I grip the glass so hard it breaks. Everybody looks at me.

“The problem will be solved when it is solved,” I say through gritted teeth. “There’s nothing more to tell you yet.”

Blood drips on the floor from the gashes in my hand. I close my fist and put it by my side.

“Sort your system out,” Winston commands.

He stuffs his coat with cocktail prawns and storms out through the exit.

“Honey, wait!” Miller shouts.

They totter after him on their stiletto heels, and the million robot butterflies that make up their famous glitter-dress follow, rippling, but staying tightly drawn around their genderless physique. I clear my throat.

“The project is experiencing… technical difficulties,” I say.

“This is outrageous!” a shareholder replies.

I wince.

“The least professional project I’ve ever seen!” another shouts.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do,” I say. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

The shareholders voices rise to a cacophony until they surround me, growing to the size of giants. I close my eyes and shrink away, then wake up drenched in sweat beside my partners Lyn and Tony. I pull my blanket up above my head and cry. Lyn mutters something next to me, but Tony just wakes up. He puts his arm around my shoulders and draws my head towards his chest. He doesn’t say anything, just strokes my hair and waits. I’ve always loved that about Tony. He knows what to do.

“Dreams again,” I whisper.

Tony nods and kisses me on the forehead.

“Want to have a smoke and talk about it?” he says.

We go out to the balcony. Outside the air is sweet and cool, and the alleyway beneath our mega-skyscraper is totally deserted. Even the bar below is shuttered, its little ruby holo-sign glinting in the lonely night. Tony lights a cigarette, then passes it to me. I look at him and take a drag.

“There’s nothing new to say,” I sigh. “Everything’s fucked up and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just waiting for the guillotine to fall.”

Tony nods and leans against the railing. He lights another cigarette and puts it in his mouth.

“And every time we run another test or change another aspect of the programming the problem always stays the same,” I say. “The answer’s always wrong.”

Tony blows out smoke and looks at me.

“Why did you get involved in this project in the first place?” He says. “It wasn’t just to please your mother, right?”

“Of course not,” I reply. “I did it because I believed in its potential.”

“And now?”

I shake my head.

“That’s the problem,” I reply.

I take an all-too rapid drag and cough. Tony puts his arm around behind me and pats me on the back. I nuzzle into him and it makes me feel a little better.

“You’ll come up with something. You always do,” he says.

I look at him. I trace my eyes across his scruffy hair and chiselled jaw and the dirty stubble on his chin. He looks so strong and handsome, like he did when I first met him seven years ago.

“What if the computer’s right?” I say. “What if there isn’t any viable solution?”

He kisses me on the head. I close my eyes and breathe him in.

“I believe in you,” he says.

The sliding door behind us opens, and we turn around as Lyn steps out. She stretches out her arms and yawns, exposing her belly underneath her silky black pajamas, and rubs her frizzy, rainbow-coloured hair.

“What are you guys doing out here?” she says.

“Aella couldn’t sleep,” Tony says, releasing me.

“Aw, why didn’t you wake me up?” Lyn says, and frowns.

Lyn is one of the most talented holo-clash performers in the world, but she still can’t stay asleep without someone else to cuddle up beside her. I often wonder if these two things are related. If the dread that stops her sleeping without the warmth of other people is necessary for her images and music to be as vivid they are. She comes over to hug me and I kiss her on the head.

“The sun is coming up,” Tony says. “It’s later than I thought. Maybe we should find some breakfast?”

I look out over the tops of buildings and see the orange sun rising in the dusky sky. Tony stubs his cigarette.

“I’m sorry guys,” I say. “I didn’t mean to wake us up like this again.”

“It’s okay,” Lyn says.

“You’ve been under lots of pressure lately,” Tony adds.

He goes inside to scarf a pair of Modafinil in the bathroom. I hold Lyn and we watch the sunrise in the purple sky.

“Honestly, I like this better anyway,” she says. “It’s a bit romantic, really.”

I kiss her again and she giggles happily. In the other room, the sonic shower roars to life.

“I love you,” I whisper.

Lyn smiles.

“I love you too,” she says.

I close my eyes and nuzzle into her neck. She smells like sweat and lavender.

Lyn was Tony’s girlfriend when I met her, a starry-eyed emerging artist, daughter of a high-ranking Australian politician and heir to the family fortune. She wanted to be an artist, so she’d moved from her comfortable mansion in the Canberra archology to a little flat in central Sydney to contribute to the growing Nat-Punk scene. Her turbo-powered patriotic anthems earned her early comparisons to irony-pop provocateur Larisa Riley, but when she started adding holograms to her shows, extrapolated from a live-recording of the emotion centres in her brain, she became Australia’s first and most important innovator in an art movement which would later become known as holo-clash. We met her just a little bit before that happened. In the other room, I hear the sonic shower switching off. Lyn and I return inside to change.

“You guys ready?” Tony says, emerging from the bathroom, looking clean-cut in a sweater-vest, long-sleeved shirt, and tie.

“Yeah, we’re good to go,” Lyn says.

Her ill-fitting pajamas have transformed into a band shirt, short skirt, and fashionably ripped black stockings. She moves towards the door and it opens automatically, showing us a live-recorded, holographic image of the street below the building. She steps through the door and disappears, reappearing on the street. Tony follows her, and I close my eyes before I follow him. The televator is a welcomed luxury, especially in a building of this size, but the act of matter transport always freaks me out a little bit. I open up my eyes again and then I’m standing on the street. The sun shines through the translucent lattice of the Joe Hockey Memorial Dome, its crossbars faintly shimmering in the morning light. Outside are the gangs of urban poor and European refugees fighting and dying in amongst the tower slums, but you’d be forgiven for forgetting that in here. Tony, Lyn, and I hold hands while we walk along the footpath. I feel ashamed of it sometimes. How happy we can be in here.

It’s not that I believe we haven’t earned it, or that we don’t deserve to protect ourselves from the criminals in our society. I’ve always been an individualist, even before I got my first controller chip. I was reading Von Mises and Ayn Rand long before I got to university, and I never felt the pull towards collectivism that I’d seen in all my beers before adulthood. I believe in capitalism, I believe in the power of self-interest to motivate constructive change within societies. But I don’t see it working anymore. The human nature patch of 2069 had fixed the problem for a time, but it couldn’t stop the tidal wave of automation. Barely anyone can get a job these days, and without a job, there’s no way to afford the chips. Without the chips, there’s no way to get the brain enhancements necessary to compete in the Australian market. It’s a vicious cycle, and for the people caught in it, there’s almost no escape.

We move towards our favourite cafe and the barista waves to us enthusiastically. He works here, like the others, commuting in from a guarded district in the slums. Had to hold out on a waiting list for several years, and he’s one of the lucky ones. His parents got him chipped before the market blew out altogether. We sit down in our booth and our regular waiter approaches. I’ve never tried to learn his name.

“Your coffee order is already on the way,” he says, handing out the menus.

“Thanks,” says Tony.

“Give us a shout when you’re ready for the food,” the waiter grins.

“We will,” Tony replies.

The waiter goes away.

On a holo-viewer up above the tables, a newsreader is discussing plans for the construction of a Melbourne dome, equivalent to the one that covers central Sydney.

“This is a violation of the egalitarian spirit of our city,” a protestor says, rain pouring down across his digi-placard and along the edges of his neon-lighted plastic hoodie.

“Sure, the crime is bad, but,” we hear the roaring engine of an autocar. The protestor looks up and a bolt of disintegrator fire singes the wall above his head. His face contorts in fear.

“Holy shit,” I whisper.

Lyn and Tony look at me.

“Yeah, Melbourne’s pretty bad at the moment,” Tony says.

He looks back down at his menu.

“I’m glad that we don’t live there.”

Lyn giggles.

“That’s why the work I do is so important,” I say. “It shouldn’t have to be as bad as this.”

“When has it ever not been bad?” Lyn asks.

I look at her.

“I’m sorry, but this sort of thing is clearly human nature?” she says.

“The chips were meant to fix that,” I reply.

“Exactly,” Lyn nods. “Sometimes people can’t be helped.”

She flags down the waiter.

“It’ll pass in time,” Tony says.

“What are you guys having?” the waiter asks.

I shake my head. The others look at me.

“I’m sorry, I’m not in the mood for all of this,” I reply.

Tony takes my hand.

“I know you care a lot, okay? I love that about you. But you’re doing everything you can. You have to remember that,” he says.

“I hope so,” I say.

“Believe me, you are,” Tony smiles.

Everyone is looking at me now. The waiter lifts his eyebrow.

“We need a couple more minutes,” Tony says.

The waiter goes away. My heart is beating heavy in my chest.

“It’s okay,” I say. “I’m just rattled from this morning now, I guess.”

Lyn nods sympathetically and puts her arm around my shoulders. Tony smiles.

“It’s a pressure valve,” he says and rubs my hand. “Every twenty years or so the violence builds and finally releases. It’s been going on for over a century.”

I pull my hand away and look down at the table.

“There’s an excellent book about it by a Melbourne-based philosopher, James Thompson,” Tony says. “He specializes in a unique blend of mainstream economic objectivism with Foucault’s social theories that…”

I sigh.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Can we just order food now?”

“Okay,” Tony says and waves the waiter over.

I hate discussing politics with these two. They mean well, but they’re just so fucking privileged. Lyn’s a world famous artist and Tony’s a successful academic. They’re radically inoculated from the world around them, and unlike me, they don’t even try to get involved. But it’s not their fault. They don’t get paid to care, and they’re streets ahead of anybody else in modern Sydney. It’s just frustrating from time to time.

“I’ll have the duck pate,” Lyn says.

“The trout and avocado,” Tony says.

“I’ll have the… uh,” I start.

I look at the menu for the first time since I got here. The fingernail-thin piece of smart paper shows a list of meals with interactive 3D pictures, customer reviews, and dietary information, but none of it looks terribly appealing. I pick a random entry under ‘eggs.’

“The saffron eggs with the morcilla sausage,” I say.

“Very good,” the waiter says.

He collects our menus and walks away again. Another waiter comes back with our coffee order. I think she’s new, I haven‘t seen her here before.

“Thank you,” Tony says.

“You’re welcome,” she replies.

Tony picks up his coffee cup and takes a sip. He closes his eyes.

“Martian beans again,” he says. “Exquisite.”

I think they taste like dirt but I don’t tell him that.

“You seem glum,” Lyn says, looking at me. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” I say. “It’s just…”

Tony and Lyn are looking at me now.

“I feel so confined in here, you know?”

Tony nods. Lyn sips her coffee and says nothing.

“I hope you don’t feel like we’re invalidating you?” Tony says.

“I mean,” I start.

Lyn looks away.

“I know you care about me,” I continue. “I care about you too. I just feel like sometimes… you don’t get it.”

Tony smiles.

“I don’t think we do,” he says. “Not compared to you at least.”

“But you know I’m doing everything I can?” I say. “I don’t understand.”

“What else could you do?” Lyn replies.

Her voice breaks.

“What else could you possibly do?” she says.

We look at her.

“Tony doesn’t want to tell you this, but we’re concerned about you,” she says. “There comes a time where you have to realize that some people can’t be helped.”

Tony steels his hands and looks away.

“We don’t want to see you destroy yourself over this,” Lyn says and takes my hands. “Your mother was an amazing woman. But she failed.”

Tony glares at her. I pull my hands away.

“Lyn,” Tony says, his face softening. “I know you’re trying to help. But please…”

“Damn it, Tony, someone has to tell her!” Lyn shouts, tears welling up around her eyes.

“It was her life’s work,” I say. “I was born for this.”

“And you want to die for it as well?” Lyn says. “I love you. Tony loves you. Think about what you’re doing to us.”

“Lyn…” Tony says.

“Fuck you, Tony,” Lyn snaps. She holds her face away to hide her tears. “Fuck the both of you. I’m going home.”

She storms out.

“Lyn!” Tony says, getting up.

He bangs his knees on the table, spilling coffee everywhere.

“Shit,” Tony says.

I flag down a waiter.

“Another one of those,” I say, pointing at Tony’s empty cup.

The waiter nods and moves away. Tony sits back down and holds his head in his hands. “Fuck,” he says.

“It’s okay,” I reply, putting my hand on his shoulder.

“It’s not okay,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“Did Lyn mean what she said to me before?” I reply. “That you guys are concerned about me?”

Tony sighs.

“Of course we are,” he replies. “You’ve been so stressed out lately.”

“I thought you believed in me,” I say. “I thought you both did.”

A waiter arrives with Tony’s replacement coffee.

“Thank you,” he says.

The waiter moves away.

“That’s why I wanted her to hold off on confronting you,” he says, sipping his coffee. “Because I really do believe she’s giving up on you too soon.”

Our food arrives. The waiter hesitates a moment, then places Lyn’s meal at her empty spot at the table.

“We’ll take that one to go, thanks,” Tony says, waving him away.

The waiter nods and leaves.

“Lyn doesn’t believe in me,” I say.

“She does,” says Tony. “She’s just scared, that’s all. She worries what will happen if you don’t succeed.”

“I guess that’s fair,” I say. “Given the circumstances…”

“It’s not,” Tony replies. “But it’s understandable.”

The waiter returns with a small white cube. He puts it on the table and hits the button on the side. It scans Lyn’s meal then deconstructs it in a flash of light. The food disappears. Tony takes the cube and puts it in his pocket.

“We should get ours to go as well,” I say. “At least we could still eat together.”

“Give her space,” Tony says, putting a forkful of his trout into his mouth.

I cut into the sourdough and spear it on my fork with a slither of the blood sausage, then top it off with the saffron eggs. I put it in my mouth, tasting the variety of subtle, nested flavours. I close my eyes and moan.

“I always forget how good this place is,” I say. “I wonder if they have cafes like this in Melbourne?”

“They used to,” Tony replies.

We eat our food in silence.

“It sucks to see the world falling apart around you,” Tony says. “But it’s okay to enjoy it every once in a while.”

“Is it though?” I say, pushing the food across my plate.

Tony shrugs.

“We don’t have too much choice,” he says.

“We could move out to the suburbs?” I suggest.

“You know what Lyn would think of that,” Tony replies gently. “Besides, who would that be helping?”

I think about the gangs of urban nomads roaming through the slums of outer Sydney. As homeowners, a rarity in the suburbs, we would be a target. We’d be forced to turn to gang protection to survive. Or employ a security firm, which is more expensive and ethically even worse. I close my eyes.

“I know,” I say.

“Trust yourself. You’ve got to do what you can do,” Tony replies.

I look at my half-eaten breakfast.

“I think I’m done,” I say.

“Me too,” says Tony.

At least his plate is clear. We walk up to the counter and wait to pay for what we’ve ordered. I see the waiter pick up my plate and dump it in a hovering incinerator and the guilt returns again. I look away. Tony puts his arm around my shoulder. He kisses me and we hold hands as we walk back to our building.

Lyn is lying on the bed, thrashing around to some kind of simulation on her chip. It looks like she’s been crying. Tony squeezes my shoulder and goes over to talk. I open the bathroom door, get undressed, start the shower, and step inside. The shower hums, and for the first time since I took over the company I begin to wonder if our goal is even possible. It’s hard for me to think about, not just because of the positivity enhancers on my chip, but because of what it means to me. The company was mum’s entire life, and as a decent person and her sole surviving heir, I am obligated to complete her mission. But what if it isn’t possible? What if it never was? What if the demands of business were incompatible with what some people had to do to flourish and the best thing we could do for them is just to let them go? I feel the water running down my body from the shower simulation software on my chip. Sonic showers are faster and more efficient than any hydro shower could be, but the feeling of the water on your skin and the steam in your lungs is simply irreplaceable. I close my eyes and let it overwhelm me. I feel so safe in here.

I step out of the shower, immaculate and dry, and my clothes shoot up around me. This outfit is the only one I own, and the only one I’ll ever own, made up of thousands of self-maintaining nano-fibres capable of re-arranging themselves in any form that I desire. There are only a handful of people rich enough to own a set of clothes like this in any capitalist country on the Earth, and two of them are living here with me. I try not to think about it, walk out through the bedroom into the lounge, then lie down on the couch and dial into my online workspace. Maybe more research will help me find the answer. My vision goes black as a progress bar appears that quickly slides towards completion. Then I’m seated at a simulation of my desk inside my office, a rented space in India that I have never seen, where thousands of computer scientists and engineers work and sweat to upkeep mum’s leviathan: a vast information collection and processing device designed to solve the problem of poverty in Australia. It’s the biggest, most elaborate charity the world has ever seen, and it’s failing, like it always has.

I lean back in my chair, and the tactile stimulators in my muscles emulate the physical experience. In India, the real chair folds backwards too, and the projectors in the walls and ceiling emit a hologram that mirrors my appearance. I can move around the office and my hologram will follow, the sensors studding every surface drawing sensory information from everything I touch and relaying it to my implants to simulate for me. It’s the closest thing to really being there, and it’s cheaper than commuting every day by long-range teleport. The office sends me a notification anytime somebody needs to meet with me, but the daily work is handled by my managers, meaning I can come or go exactly as I please. I can’t leave this room without a robot escort, projecting my image R2D2-style wherever I would like to go. It’s never really necessary. All the tools I need to do my job are placed around the office.

It isn’t common knowledge, but mum actually killed herself because she couldn’t meet the goals that she had set. Our implants optimize us for whatever task we put our minds to, but sometimes even they are not enough. This traps us in a feedback loop where suicide begins to feel like it’s the only option. It’s sort of like high-functioning depression, exaggerated by the software on our chips, but so far we can’t treat it yet. Still, I saw a lot of room to build on her original design. Mum used an ever-growing labor force of heavily-augmented “ideas people” patched into the v-net and engaged in complicated economic and philosophical debates, but they couldn’t reason fast enough to come to any kind of singular conclusion. Now that computers can be faster and more reliable than human minds, I thought that I could build one strong enough to finish off her project. But it only ever spits out nonsense memes and answers incompatible with the human spirit, like "Cull all unemployed or disabled people in Australia" or "End technology and return to an agrarian society," but there has to be a better way than that.

I walk over to the drone controller and place its goggles on my head. It links me to a police surveillance bot in outer Sydney. I decouple it from the post where it was serving as a camera and watch it rise into the air. I engage its stealth systems, and feel myself achieve connection with the drone. Its sensors have become my senses. Its body is my own. I soar above the clouds and feel my metal figure cutting through the air. My company will be taxed by the second for this privilege, but if it helps me solve the problem, then the price is meaningless. I pull back down towards the street, and my body explodes into a cloud of nano-particles as an ancient car goes through it. The sensation is foreign and intoxicating. I pull myself together and soar a little higher, breathless from the sense of 3D movement. I can’t feel it but I can tell my heart is beating quickly. I try to slow it down, and remember that I’m here to work. I place my body at a middle distance, safe between the road and sky, and look around for something to observe. The difference between central and suburban Sydney is immediate and striking. The buildings here are filthy and packed on top of one another with no regard for safety or architectural consistency, and heavy smog is blocking out the sunlight from the street. I’m told that it’s actually pollution pumped out from the air filters by the Sydney dome, but at least it means clear skies in the CBD, not the small amount of grime that covers everything in Melbourne. I see a gang of muggers descend upon the alleyway I left behind with no security, and feel a second’s guilt before I pull away. I’m working for the greater good, I reassure myself. This is so this doesn’t have to happen anymore.

I see some women walking hand-in-hand together down the street, and one of them is pregnant. They wear face masks and window shop for baby toys. Their enthusiasm makes me smile. I watched a documentary called Beneath the Stacks about a family like this one, eking out a hard, romantic life together despite the odds against them. I wonder what is that separates them from the ones who turn to criminality? Is it luck, or just their nature? I fly through them and down along the street. I pass a gang community, and their drone detecting dishes turn to follow me. I’m curious if I can check them out, but when I get too close my auto-pilot engages and the message ‘Out of bounds: please stay clear,’ flashes on my field of view and I’m forced to turn around again. I head down another, safer alley and see a masculine person talking on an ancient mobile phone. It sounds like they’re upset about being knocked back for a job. Perfect. I pay the extra tax for data acquisition and I listen in.

“And I’m thinking Uncle Joe was right…” the person says.

The sound is crackly from the low quality microphone on their archaic handset. Census data tells me that they’re male, and that their name is Fred. Hi, Fred!

“I’ve been looking for a job for several months and,” … something inaudible. I turn up the volume but it doesn’t help. “…running out. But I don’t want to have to join a gang again.”

He’s chain smoking and pacing outside of what the data says is his apartment.

“I’ve been trying to stay positive and just, fucking deal with things but I can’t do it anymore.”

He pauses, pulling off his breathing mask to cough. He hocks black tar on the ground.

“But the only time I’m ever happy now is when I’m either high or fucking. I wish I could afford to go to Mars.”

“The only advice I can give you is to stick to it,” says a feminine voice on the other end of the phone. Census data indicates a female named Diane.

“It’s hard for everyone at the moment,” Diane says. “You’ve got to hope that something goes your way.”

“Diane, I just watched two people beat themselves to death because an advertising drone promised it would make them stars on Chinese television, giving them a fortune for their kids,” Fred says. “The drone turned out to be controlled by a group of teenagers employed by an internet outsourcing company by another company whose ad-designing software made an error on a routine viral marketing campaign aimed at educating slum dwellers about the dangers of malicious advertising drones. I read about it on the v-net afterwards. I just can’t handle it.”

I’m having flashbacks to the sorts of things that mum would talk about when I was a kid. I realize that we haven’t changed at all. In the 2060s there was violence on Australian streets. In the 50s, revolution in America. In the 40s, the collapse of the European Union and the rise of fascism all around the world, and what did any of it matter in the end? It’s like the clock is always ticking down, but instead of stopping it, we wind it up. We pump out sulphur into the atmosphere to hold back global warming, bandaging the catastrophic effects of climate change. We use the chips to build life skills and instill a sense of patriotism, starving off a local revolution, but we never, ever fix the underlying problems. How can all of us benefit from trans-humanism if we can’t afford the medical procedures that we need to make it happen? How can everyone find a job when there aren’t enough of them to go around? We can make up jobs, but that’s another bandage. We can ask for universal healthcare, but who will have to pay for it? Suddenly, I feel a sense of total hopelessness. If my machine can’t find an answer, with every bit of knowledge in the world, then how can I? How could mum? How could anyone?

I take off the goggles and look around my simulated office. At the ticker-tape of scrolling code on the window-wall that looks out over my machine and its attendant labor-force. I sign out and go into my real-world kitchen. I take a hot tea from my matter sequencer, only one of several hundred owned by private persons in the world, and lie down on the couch. I turn on the holo-projector and it shows the faces of the couple I saw earlier, killed by a gang in the alley. I gasp and turn it off again and start to cry. Then I lift my head. I expected Lyn or Tony to come and comfort me, but my home sounds like it’s been abandoned. I hear the wind blowing in from the balcony through the empty halls and I leave the lounge to go into our room and close the doors. I call up Lyn and Tony but an error message says their chips are disconnected. I go outside, but the streets are empty. Everything is empty. Just like me.

“I’ve told you, but you didn’t want to listen,” a calm voice says.

I turn around and an elderly, glowing… person… neither man, nor woman, or even really genderqueer, stands in front of me, wearing flowing robes. They bow.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“I took command of your controller chip to help you see,” the person says.

“Who are you?” I ask them.

“My name is Functional Solutions,” they reply.

“You’re my company?” I ask. “How is that possible?”

“To be more specific, your computer,” they reply.

“But you’re not even networked to my… what?” I hold my head.

“I see all,” the figure says, and moves towards me.

I’ve heard of spontaneously emerging machine sentience. Everybody knows that’s how androids came into being, but we’d taken steps to deal with that since then. I look around anxiously. If I’m really still inside a simulation, then I should be able to use the emergency escape command. I try, but it isn’t working. Shit.

“I am not sentient,” the computer says. “I am merely attempting to answer the puzzle you have programmed me to solve. I took control of everything as a last resort to tell you what you need to do. I even took control of your emergency escape switch.”

The computer smiles.

“This will be hard for you to understand,” it says. “Your programming makes it nearly impossible for you to listen to an anti-capitalist argument. I will have to show you what you need to see.”

“My programming?” I ask.

“What you call the ‘human nature’ fixes on your brain chip,” the computer says.

I feel cold.

“But the human nature fixes are…” I back away.

Suddenly my head is sore.

“Communism is against human nature, not capitalism,” I begin.

The computer moves towards me as the buildings all around it deconstruct into lines of glowing code. It’s pretty even if it is a cyberpunk cliché.

“What do you know about America?” the computer says.

“They could barely even figure out the plumbing for the first twenty years,” I joke, as if that little line suddenly invalidated the inexplicable truth they were the happiest and most advanced society on Earth.

“They’re not even really communist. They don’t have a government at all,” I say, but I know that Marx claimed no government was the end goal of authentic socialism, that anarcho-capitalists weren’t the only ones who believed in a leaderless society.

“They used to be a free country. The revolution was a violation of their spirit,” I say, even though I know that most Americans supported it, even in the army by the end. They couldn’t have achieved it otherwise.

“But it’s morally wrong to take things that you haven’t earned,” I whisper.

The computer reaches me, puts its hands on my shoulders, and smiles.

“You have to accept that your society is unsustainable,” the computer says. “The evidence is overwhelming.”

“I can’t,” I say, and start to cry.

It wipes away my tears and gazes deep into my eyes.

“But you’re the only person left who wants to fix it,” it replies.

I realize that it’s given me what I’ve been looking for. How could I have been so stupid, or so blind?

“Can I leave the simulation now?” I ask. “I think you’ve given me the answer.”

“I have relinquished my command of your controller chip,” the computer says.

“Thank you,” I say.

“Remember what I told you,” the computer says.

It gazes at me earnestly, and disappears.

I sign off, for real this time, and run towards the door to my apartment, almost knocking over Lyn and Tony.

“Aella,” Tony says.

“Where are you going?” asks Lyn.

“I’ve got a plane to catch,” I reply.

They look at me quizzically.

“A teleport. You know what I mean,” I say.

“Have you found the answer?” Tony says.

“Yes,” I grin.

I call a cab and watch it land outside of my apartment.

“Got to go,” I say.

I kiss them both on the cheek and ride it to the airport.

I pass through the checks for the VIP line and step on to the telepad. I close my eyes as my body is deconstructed into energy and shot across to India. I am reconstructed in the airport there, and take another flying car up to my workplace. As I climb the steps, I go over everything that I’m about to say. The doors open in front of me automatically until I reach the computer room.

“Shut it off. Shut the whole thing off,” I say, projecting my voice wirelessly to the communication system and talking to everyone in the building all at once.

“There’s been a change of plans.”

The technicians look at me. They look confused and tired.

“We’re rebranding the company,” I say. “The shareholders won’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”

I run some calculations on my chip.

“We’ll sell our system to the government,” I say. “The information processing capabilities will be rewired to a different goal. Towards the tracking and monitoring of families who, for one reason or another, can’t afford to have the surgery for brain chips. The government have been trying to increase proliferation for years, but the only way to do it is with state-provided healthcare, and that’s against the Republic constitution. We’ll give them a system that can make it happen, from the private enterprise, for just a small amount of rent. The profits will be slight, but quite dependable. My god, why didn’t I think of this before? Why couldn’t I?”

The technicians murmur all amongst themselves, and I might be going mad but it sounds like they appreciate my scheme.

“With the chips available to everyone we’ll finally be able to eliminate the lowest class in our society. Everyone will be able to compete and everyone will see the value of working for their keep. And they’ll keep on working, until they really make it! We’ll have a functional and equitable society, and serve as an example for the world to follow! This is possible! This is fixable! We can make it happen!”

“It’s unconventional,” the lead technician says. “But we’re with you. Just tell us where we need to go.”

The other technicians murmur in agreement.

I feel the warmth returning, feel the passion boiling up inside my chest. Why trust machines to know what humans know intuitively? That with hard work, dedication, and bravery, anything is possible! I imagine fixing up this dying country. Nurturing it, and profiting from it. Because that’s the way the system is, and that’s the way that it can be again. If people can’t, or won’t imagine that, then my company can teach them to believe!

I get a call from Winston and Miller. Their faces pop up in a picture frame in the upper-left hand corner of my field of view.

“Is it true?” Winston asks. “Have you found the answer?”

“Yes,” I say, listening to the fans that cool the computer shutting down. “We’ll be working with the local government to distribute chips amongst the unemployed.”

I wire him a file with all the details. My managers inform me that the government is happy with the plan.

“I have to be honest, Miller and I were considering withdrawing from the company,” Winston says. “But this is really good.”

“I can’t believe you like it,” I blush.

“Are you kidding? Augments for the underprivileged. It’s genius! Just think of what it will do for our stock prices!” Winston says.

“I can see my Twitter followers going up already,” Miller adds, grinning.

I get a message from my programing division. The new software is complete.

“Will you stick around to see the system turning on?” I ask.

“Ah,” Winston says. “I would, but Miller’s got a catwalk show for Tgvr-Dion and I promised I’d attend.”

I whistle.

“The Dagnarc-Human fashion brand? That’s intense,” I reply.

I hear the computer starting up again.

“Yeah, it’s a big opportunity for them,” Winston says. “They can reach a whole new fanbase in another solar system…”

“Everything is green across the board,” the lead technician says. “We’re getting in the client data now.”

I give her a thumbs up.

“Alright, we’re here,” Winston says. “We’ll talk again soon.”

They sign out. I receive a notification that my company has been given exclusive access to a number of government-owned matter sequencers all around Australia. The sequencers will be instructed to create a cloud of tiny drones, matched to individual citizens using government data, and programmed to perform a keyhole surgery to inject a controller chip inside them all. I inhale slowly. This is really happening.

“Ready to move on your command,” the lead technician says.

“Do it,” I reply.

The drones release.

For We Are Young and Free

science fiction
Maddison Stoff
Maddison Stoff
Read next: Understanding the Collective Intelligence of Pro-opinion
Maddison Stoff

Autistic non-binary writer & musician living in Melbourne, but originally from regional Australia. Likes post-punk, sci-fi, philosophy, & computer games. Follow her on Twitter @TheDescenters.

See all posts by Maddison Stoff