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Rated: E · Fiction · Computers · #2095654
The Divine Comedy meets contemporary Science, Science Fiction, and Philosophy.
Chapter 4

I typed "punishment works," and added a link to conditioning. "Finally finished," I thought, before hitting a green button: 'submit.' I watched the screen. A few moments later my opponent's opening arguments appeared, titled: "No one has free will," "Peter couldn't have succeeded," and "Jack gave us all PTSD."
         The point about free will explained neuro-circuitry, and the way our minds are an illusion precipitating from the way we constantly integrate our memories of inputs and outputs. It said that prison and banishment only made sense in the Pseudo-Communities, where individuals could only be expected to act more or less as they had in the past--or worse.
"That seems stupid," I thought, "when you break the law you get punished--that's why our parents made it." I frowned and scratched my ear. The word 'disruptive' reminded me of how Noam talked about power, and the way it was manipulated by those who had it.
I shook my head and snorted, thinking, "I'm not angry because he was being disruptive; it's because he wanted to trap me in the cult of his twisted ego!" I noticed I was breathing heavily.
         I looked up from where I was sitting, at one of dozens of terminals active on the Consensus, engaged in the mini-games that would eventually spine together into law. I wondered how many had chosen to fight on Peter's side, and how many were forced to debate against what they believed. I wondered which of these kids I was debating now, and whether they even slightly believed themselves. I glared back at my screen.
The second argument explained how hard the terminals were to hack, but the third, the one about PTSD, made no sense. "So what if Peter feels bad--that's what happens when you try to brainwash people!" I remembered when Peter had been hit in the gut, and for a second my own twitched. I rolled one of my shoulders and my jaw, looking out of the corner of my eye at nothing.

***

It didn't happen at once. Peter had been very good at hiding his thoughts. But more of those flakes of pure awareness had been condensing, and nearly everyone in Community-42 spent the next week listening to Peter, judging him. Peter knew it because he got inside all their heads each night too; heard them judging him; heard them judging or sympathizing with how he reacted to them the night before. Like an Ouroboros, Peter and the Community ate each other's tails.
Each night, as he fell asleep, the image of Jack's contorted face seemed a bit more vivid, missing all the twitching in her neck and shoulders. The light in that bathroom seemed a little darker each time, like it emitted anti-matter.
During the day his heart was racing, and he didn't talk with anyone. Everything humming made the hairs on his neck stand.
I began distracting myself by paying attention to the few couples still dating each other.

***

The mind of Sam Harris interested me even when she wasn't dating her girlfriend. She was constantly writing and lecturing an imaginary audience on the dangers of the refugees' beliefs: some worshipped ancient Egyptian gods. She called it an outdated attempt at making the Eywa Narrative, using symbols and a hierarchy of social roles instead of memory. Their beliefs actually facilitated violence.
She thought it was weird I was listening to her, but after talking she said it was "fine."

***

My sweat was cold as I slept. Memories of the day my parents left were coming out in the dark. Like a squid, their tentacles began to clamp onto me, bringing back the refugees' threat to detonate nuclear waste near our dome. Its beak opened, and deep within its throat I could see my parents saying "we'd do the same in their skins."
It swallows my head, and in that thick saliva I stand with hundreds of scared kids, gathering like ants around the monitors in the Commons. I see, on the screens, video from dozens of drones watching the army of refugees winding up a narrow, dusty road. The sky is grey and rippling. One of the drones hovers higher and higher, until it sees our dome poking through a tall, sandstone mesa. Behind it a sky high jungle of red-gold particles are bellowing closer, continuously being mutilated by booming white veins.
My imagination went numb then, and I was gaping at a dark, shapeless ceiling and cool, blue darkness.

***

The greenhouse smelled like rotting fruit.
"Look Carl, they aren't part of Eywa. Why shouldn't we set the A.I. on them? Our parents designed it. Think of it like, I don't know, a benevolent ruler. We obeyed, and its working!"
Carl nodded, lips pursed, before quickly glancing at Noam. He told me, "You know it ain't that smart, right? I feel you; I've wanted perfectness too. But it's not an A.G.I., goy! It can't change itself. Adapt? Sure, from a list mighty short. And check what ends each of them: else subdue. That's when the drones stop talking and start zapping. Doing that again, to refugees? It'd help nobody."
I looked away from him, up at three red-haired refugees a hundred feet away and behind glass. They were staring back at me, all with a hand on a window. I closed my eyes a moment and sucked air.
I looked at Carl then. He had thick eyebrows, knitted together. He'd been acting like his Dad, Mr. Rogers; always talking quietly and smiling broadly. The older boy had been talking with Peter especially often, as they walked up and down the greenhouse scaffolds.
"I'm just..." I waved a hand. "A lot. And the A.I. has been giving them more floors. What happens when they're allowed in here, or the Commons?"
He watched me closely, nodding his head. "It sounds like you're scared; scared of new folk?"
I told Carl Rogers about Sam and her concerns, but the older boy told me the refugees could still contribute to the Community. I didn't understand what he meant, but I trusted him.

***

Despite Carl's criticism, there were many kernels of insight I picked from the corncob of Sam's internal monologues. One was a type of meditation which helped her to bake the clay of her memory. She thought of it like stretching after exercising: first she'd pay attention to sensations in her hands, and then focus until they were nothing but clouds of heat, pressure and vibration. She'd do the same to her skin, feelings, and mind.
With some practice, so did I.

Chapter 5

Standing in the Commons, I realize I haven't admired the ceiling in a long time, even before the storm. It has so many intricate details. "A veil of broken memories grew, like moss, over my mind, rendering the very ceiling invisible to me."
I'm scratching my chin, and my first bits of peachy fuzz, when I hear the elevator open. Turning, I see them entering: a dozen refugees, grey faces marred by years in the dry wind above.
They stand huddled together, gazing at us. I stand huddled in a group of my own.
The elevator doors close behind them. There's silence for several moments. A girl with red hair shrugs and walks towards us. I notice an attractive blonde girl behind her, before I shrug and walk towards the redhead. We shake hands, and I look into her eyes. Light bounces off those green-white orbs, and in them I see a blurry reflection of myself.

***

My hand twists the graphene wire, pulling hard. My brows furrow as my throat grunts, when Louise asks, "You need help with that?"
         I look over my shoulder, wiping sweat off my brow. The redhead has her twin brothers, Trey and Matt E.K. Like half the refugees, they'd come from the Pseudo-Community South Park.
         My shoulders shrug, and my feet take a few steps back from the paneling. I remember noticing someone fix a fan, and following their flakes of memory to learn how. I tell the triplets this fifth floor fan just broke, and how they could fix it.
         Louise leads them in peeling the rusted, twisted graphene grid from its host. They shout broken sentences at each other as they work: "There, the thing!" "Which? Oh." "On three!" They finish.
Matt gasps, "Man, that was fucking tough," as he puts the silver wire in my hand.
I take it, ready to melt it down and print out an undamaged copy. I try to ignore that Matt cussed.
         My feet begin walking along the curving hallway, and the three walk behind me. I don't know exactly where to go; I haven't been allowed outside the greenhouse and the Commons in years.
         To my right, the greenhouse ripples with gardeners. The dome is letting in white light.
Walking towards me is the tall blonde, surrounded by her troop of laughing refugees. My ears hear the triplets whispering something that ends with "come on, Giver another chance." I'm not sure why she'd need one, considering the triplets had known her for years.
         "They took my parents place!" blurts my mind. One of my brows twitch, and I'm not even watching as Taylor swiftly walks by, her crowd in tow.
         Something about her reminds me of how I felt about Noam, way back before the Eywa Narratives. I can hide the fact that I like Taylor, and instead of being quietly rejected every night I can just be invisible. I force my imagination, sometimes, to spit flakes of consciousness around Taylor like a halo. It takes work, however, and those flakes feel empty.
         My imagination sees two massive orbs, one filled with light and the other empty. The lit orb fires a single pinprick of light into the empty one.
         I slow down, letting the triplets walk beside me. I'm just next to them for a while, listening, until they begin talking to me: making jokes and asking questions. Eventually, we begin talking about serious topics, until I think of a serious question. There's a pause in the conversation and, hands in my pockets, I ask:
         "Why's there always so much violence in the Pseudo-Communities?"
         Matt waves a hand. "Cognitive Dissonance; it makes people crazy."
         Louise E.K. rolls her eyes. "Politicians say 'let's all work together.' But it's the apocalypse, of course we should."
         Trey pumps a fist, like a punch. "But they take food and power for themselves and their families instead, because, you know, it's their families. And it's the apocalypse."
         Matt raised an eyebrow. "Plus food and power are dope-triggers, and everyone loves dope-triggers."
         Louise E.K. turns up her palms. "So then bandits, military leaders, and just about everyone else starts making hierarchies..."
         Matt and Trey karate chop the air and laugh as they holler, "Derka-derka Fundamental Attribute Error derka-derka Scapegoating DERKA-DERKA..."
         Louise E.K. shouts while playfully wrinkling her nose, "'Fuck the Jews!'"
         I notice someone walking towards us flinches, glancing at her with narrow eyes.
She continues, "Plus no one in the--wadya call us?--Pseudo-Communities, force their people to be cyborgs with implants and shit." She's looking me in the eyes now, lips pursed.
         The hairs on the back of my neck are standing. "I hate it when they cuss."
I remembered starting a debate, in the Consensus, to try to ban those words. No one forced on my side was able to defeat the alienation and oppression disadvantages, however, and no law had precipitated out of our arguments.
         I remember they helped me fix the AC. I use empathic meditation: I imagine wearing their clothes--maybe it itches?--and walking in their sandals down these red-gold halls.
There's silence as we think of ways to keep the conversation going. Glancing for a topic, I see the booth where Peter and Andrew and I had been sitting the last few weeks; hacking, writing and programming. I'd been making a game in which I navigated society, running errands between dozens of people for a great, superordinate goal.
Others sit in that booth today, likely making code or essays from the days' data dump. One of them is savoring fish and strawberries as she works.
We only get one data dump a day. Since the satellites turned to a cloud of shrapnel, only one relay station--a low orbit space station, also used to ferry people to and from the moon--was still operational. An enormous part of our Communities' contribution to the world is using that data to write 3D printer blueprints; analyze geopolitical and economic data; and provide or improve cybersecurity.
Louise coughs, waving a hand as she says, "You know, we make it sound like we blame you, or that the outside is awful, but there's a lot I was grateful for. I remembered seeing fireworks during holidays, and I knew they were mostly propaganda for our police state, but at the same time..."
Matt softly interjects, "watching them, I knew everyone else was watching them too. Even if our leaders wanted control, South Park was just people, right?"
Trey sighs, scratching the back of his head. "And, watching the fireworks, I felt really close to everyone--even to people I couldn't see, or didn't know. I knew we were all there, watching the same thing from different angles."
I respond, "Right, but... the Community Narrative--Eywa--is built on communication. And celebrations don't have it. There's the message they spew at you, and maybe you talk with the people standing next to you, but..."
Louise nods. "Sure, but... I had tech. I could look at the news whenever I wanted."
Trey nods too. "That's right. I mean, journalists acted like everything good was a miracle and everything bad a tragedy, but that's just because it's how they needed to do their jobs. We weren't in each other's heads."
Matt sighs, "It was the best they had and, like smart fish, we just made sure to work the bait off the hook."
Louise tosses a hand in her hair. "I mean, everyone loves to say 'oh yea, fuck the state, let's just overthrow this shit. But even if we got rid of President Saddam Hussein, we'd have to deal with the radicals." She sees me squinting and explains, "They don't worship the whole pantheon--just the goddess of the moon, ISIS."

***

We keep talking, until I reach the 3D printers. There are dozens of other kids there. Unlike food, which gets rationed out, the printers are distributed the same way as data and power: a certain amount is available per second, and like sharing a river we share the Internet of Things. I begin working at one of the printers, but the triplets still stand at my back.
After several minutes, my printer begins making the new AC parts. Wiping sweat from my cheek, I turn and say, "I really appreciated your help and your company, but is there anything else?"
They speak quickly, laughing, and after a few minutes of rapid back and forth exchanges between themselves they tell me what they want: access to the Consensus.
"Look, you're probably the same age as us, but we don't get to make laws? We've been assimilated! What are you waiting for?"
I respond, "Look, until your daily Narratives get synthesized with ours, I can't trust you."
"And we can't put our Narratives together until we have access to the Consensus." They grin at each other, showing teeth.
"We could stay in a Catch-22," Louise begins.
"Or..." continues Matt,
"You could break it for us," finishes Trey.
They stare at me then, and we all listened to the dull, throbbing hum of the machines around us.

Chapter 6

"Listen Noam, can you help put them in the Consensus?"
         "Sure," she begins, "but can't you do that yourself?"
         "We need at least a dozen people debating this to make it a Community issue, to get the A.I. to force debates."
         "Okay, but some of them talk about power like they don't have any, and it makes me sick." She was bobbing her head, grinning. "Life, learning, language; they're only alive if we are."
         I knew I needed to convince her, that even getting inside her mind didn't guarantee perfect communication. I've changed how I speak, depending on whom I'm with, to reflect that fact.
         I remind her, "Comedy is a defense mechanism, and they've needed it. Disagree, make compromise proposals; just be involved."
         "Ok." She smiles. People with depression are very good at faking happiness, but lately even Noam's mind had been zipping, like lightning pulsed in its veins.

***

"Listen Jack, what do you think of letting the refugees into Eywa?"
         "Sure. Great. I still don't think we even need the thing."
         I can chastise her, intimidating though she still seems, but don't want to misunderstand. "What do you mean?"
         Jack looks down at me. "I think that, if we act the way we want, it just automatically comes out that everything works out. I've been doing a lot of writing, and I think that... I feel this thrill as I think about all the people, like gas, heating up and flying free from the quagmire of the Pseudo-Communities' tyranny."
         "Still?"
         She frowned. "I don't know what that's supposed to mean, but I imagine all this freedom like it's gas spreading across the world. You know, once we figure out Quantum communication we won't even need the moon to--"
         "Wait, freedom spreading like a gas across the world?" I wave to the dome, only a few dozen yards from the window we stand behind. A red-gold blizzard rages above it. "Hi Neoliberalism, how are ya?" I turn to Jack, whose lips are pursed. "Did you forget why we're inside all the time? It sounds to me like you're--"
         "Fu... friggin get on my level, ok? I'm tryin ta tell ya something." She breathes through her nose, waving a hand as her shoulders and fists began to unclench. "Listen Larry, I'm sorry if I get ticked so easily, it's just that these ideas are how I... who I..." Jack bites her cheek as she looks up. She notices me looking at her bare, porous scalp, and smiles.
         I smile back, chuckling.
         These kinds of conversations happen often to me now: the kind where people suddenly realize they don't know what they're trying to say; the kind where they don't realize I'm not in their head.
         Soon Jack agrees to help.

***

Peter agrees to help too, and we begin to talk again. He's been doing research, and the world will soon run out of uranium. The Communities and Pseudo-Communities have wind, geothermal, and solar, but those aren't enough to survive without nuclear. Luckily, he tells me, the moon has tons of helium-3, a potential power source for fusion. He hopes his application will be accepted, and he can take the space elevators to the moon and make the reactors himself.
         Peter tells me he dreams of being the one to discover how to create it. He dreams his success will make people want to work on projects with him. He tells me he constantly fights to forget those dreams, but like a squid their tentacles always regenerate and squeeze again. Some people are scared he'll take his delusions too seriously, but Peter reassures me he knows who he is, and what's at stake.
My hand is on his shoulder as he tells me this. He's looking off into nothing while he speaks. Carl probably would've asked him questions, but I just listen.

***

My hands swing slightly as my feet move in rhythm. I've never been on the top floor of Community-42 before. My arm itches, and my hand scratches it. My eyes notice golden light pouring into my hallway, stolen from the greenhouse. I look through it, down. I notice that the skyscraper of reflective scaffolding has a pattern which fractals, and smile.
I walk through a door, expecting it to be empty. Instead I see a kid drawing enormous diagrams.
Smiling, I say, "Hi there, I'm not sure we've met before. My name's Larry Kohlberg."
The kid turns, seeing me through glasses and raised eyebrows. "I'm not surprised you don't know me, I basically keep to myself. Daniel Fitzmier."
I shake his hand, remembering all the time I'd spent alone while under the A.I.'s authority. I spent so much time with others now, even thinking with them, that I'd forgotten how fun being alone could be.
To be polite, I gestured to the diagrams. "What's that?"
Words, like water from an accidentally cracked damn, begin spraying at me.
"It's a moral chunking device I call the House Model: the trapezoid on top represents the roof, the vertical rectangles pillars, and the fat horizontal rectangles on bottom the foundations. This house," he knocks his knuckles on one, "Represents the activity 'reading.' The pillars are predictable behaviors you can expect from it, like novelty--that whoever's written it likely created interesting situations or characters--and 'Aha' moments--which is what you feel when a whole bunch of brain cells suddenly realize they're unexpectedly, insightfully, connected. Authors need those, otherwise no one would read! The whole point of the pillars is to correct for their foundations: tendencies like Mental Set, or Apathy," he gestures to two of dozens of horizontal rectangles. "How could you think nothing can change when you feel dope? Dope is almost neurogenesis, definitely neuroplasticity. Those connections, especially interesting ones, release neurotrophic growth hormones!"
My lips are pursed. It's interesting, but too forward for me. I feel awkward.
"Oh, and over here is a 'debate' House Model which sits on the foundations Confirmation Bias, Information Overload, and--"
Trying to be honest, I say "I'm sorry, but--"
Daniel cuts me off, "You're right. Why this matters."
He brushes a hand through his dreadlocks. As I watch him, I imagine slipping into his skin, shirt and shoes. I almost feel his blood pumping as he tries to please me; some new, yet friendly, stranger.
"We can't afford to empathize just once a night; we need morals with rules that show how to make decisions. I believe that those rules can't assume free will--they must acknowledge autonomy is constrained by our social and cultural environments. They also need to acknowledge neuroplasticity and the truth that we have the ability to effect, chose between and change those things. Something which could accomplish that, I think, would be as revolutionary as quantum communication."
I remember a rule my parents taught me, to 'invite people to join you,' especially if you didn't know them well.
         I quickly interject a question: does he wants to play cards with my friends later tonight? He agrees. I tell myself to get to know him tonight by asking him questions, and to listen to his internal responses through Eywa. I tell Daniel we're meeting in the greenhouse, on the seventh level--where fish, in vats, feed on heterotrophic, fish feces feasting bacteria.


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