Finally, the seventeenth anthology is done. It can be found here.
For this one I wrote a story with a little bit of hope for the future. Not too much, I don’t want to be accused of writing happy endings, but I have included a tiny shred of hope. It’s a fair way into ‘Panoptica’ but it’s still quite a way from the end. Hopefully you’ll be able to keep track of what’s going on.
The Failure Delegation
Jennifer stared into darkness and silence until, with a loud clack, harsh lights came on. She pressed her eyes closed against the glare until they became accustomed, then opened them a little. Her arms were tied behind her but the rope around her waist was visible and if she leaned forward a little, the ropes tying her legs to the chair came into view, just a little bit.
She looked up, squinting against the glare of the lighting. To her left, his head hanging, Quentin let out a grunt but made no other movement. Like her, he was tied to a chair and his, as she presumed was hers, was bolted to the floor. A little shifting confirmed her presumption. Her chair was immobile.
Still squinting against the glare, Jennifer tried to survey the room. It wasn’t easy, the light came from all four corners and made it very difficult to see anything very much. The room looked bare apart from her and Quentin’s chairs and one other, set facing them. There was a door in the plain grey wall behind that empty chair and as it clicked open, Jennifer let her head fall in mock unconsciousness. What was coming was not likely to be good.
“Drone ships activated. Twelve minutes.” Quentin tapped at his keyboard. “Let’s get going.”
“Pfft.” Jennifer continued her download. “We’ll be done in three and out of here in four more. Twelve minutes is easy.”
“They never seem to catch us hacking in. Can’t really be too impressed with their AI systems.” Quentin grinned into his screen.
“Two minutes. We’ll be up to date with what they’re doing in those cities and gone before they know it.” Jennifer stared at the status bar. “What? The download stopped.” She tapped at her keyboard. “The computer’s locked up.”
Quentin’s smile faded. “There’s a new algorithm showing up. They delay the report of drone release by ten minutes. The drones are about to arrive.” He folded his laptop. “Pull your plugs and run!”
Eschewing the normal slow disconnect that she’d always hoped the computers wouldn’t notice too soon, Jennifer yanked out every connection to the exposed mainline, closed her laptop with the cables still attached to it and followed Quentin at a run to their exit. A hatch into ancient pipelines that would take them within a few hundred metres of their current home.
Too late. A drone hovered over their escape hatch; its machine gun trained on them. Two more joined it. A personnel carrier came into view just as one of the drones fired tasers.
Jennifer’s world exploded in electrical agony. The last thing she saw was Quentin shuddering to the floor while a sky box opened its rear door for them. Then it all went dark.
“You may leave.” The mellow voice sounded gentle to Jennifer’s ears but she clenched her teeth. There was unlikely to be anything that could remotely be described as ‘gentle’ in her immediate future.
“But sir—” The other voice sounded uncertain, almost panicked.
“I said, leave. They are unarmed and secured. They pose no danger to me.” A pause. “Oh, and ensure all surveillance is discontinued. I will be discussing things with these terrorists that should not be on record. It may be disturbing to many people.”
Jennifer suppressed a grimace. Terrorists? Us? We aren’t the ones torturing and killing people.
There was a silence, then the door clicked closed. The silence remained. After a while, Jennifer wondered if the long silence meant they were alone again. She risked opening one eye.
“Ah, there you are.” A man sat in the third chair, smiling. He wore the barcoded onesie of the Panoptica cities.
Not many lines, she noted. If 10538 were here, she’d know the number at once but the best Jennifer could guess at was a single digit. Maybe two.
The man continued. “Obviously I knew at least one of you was awake. I wasn’t going to sit around and watch you sleep.” He grinned. “We do have quite a lot of cameras here, as you know, including infrared ones.”
Jennifer opened both eyes and sat up as straight as her bonds allowed. “Kill us both now. Torturing us is a waste of time. Our people will have moved on as soon as they realised we were captured and we don’t know where the next home is.” She took several breaths. “Just get it over with. We have no information for you.”
The man laughed. “I don’t need any information. I’ve been following you around for many years. I know where your people are going now and I know where they will go next.”
Jennifer realised her mouth hung open and closed it while forcibly narrowing her widened eyes. “But… that would mean you could have wiped us out any time you liked. So you must be lying.”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe. Truth is still truth.” He took a device from some fold or pocket in his onesie. It beeped and showed a blue light. “We are not being observed. Believe it or don’t believe it, it makes no difference to reality. In this room we are alone. It is only you and me.”
“And Quentin.” She looked at her partner, slumped in his chair.
“I don’t care about your names. You were the one who got into the system. He was your courier. He won’t wake yet.”
Jennifer closed her eyes and wished she should press the heels of her hands into them, but her hands were firmly tied to the chair.
It makes no sense. What the hell is going on?
She took a breath, opened her eyes and stared at the expressionless face opposite. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“Ah.” The man sat back, folded his arms and grinned. “Straight to the point, eh? No messing about. I like that.” His smile faded, a flicker of what might have been sadness crossed his face before he coughed, shook himself and stared into her eyes.
“I am Five. I have had many titles before that and so have the cities. I am one of the last of the city runners. Have you worked out why the cities exist, and do you know why they are dying?”
“Well…” Should she tell him what they knew? It had all come from the city computers anyway so he already knew it, surely? She realised he wasn’t asking what she knew. He was asking if she understood what they had found.
“Well…” Jennifer paused. Was it a trap, a way to find out how much they had downloaded?
Five rolled his eyes. “We know exactly how much information you have. Did it never occur to you that while you were accessing our computers, we were accessing yours? You haven’t upgraded your firewalls in decades. You have accumulated a lot of information. Did you understand its implications?”
Jennifer shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re looking for. Many cities just died out, there are only a few left. Your records are not clear on what happened to them.”
Five stared into her eyes and shook his head, slowly. “I was hoping you’d be smarter but, I suppose, since you’ve been living the hard life, you probably haven’t had time to get into genetics.”
“Genetics?” Jennifer’s eyes widened. “We don’t all have access to everything downloaded, in case we’re captured, but we do understand genetics. At least some of us do. Are you saying the cities are clones? That was my reading of the data.”
Jennifer tried to shift in her seat but the bonds made it impossible. She could not get comfortable. “Look,” she said. “If you know that much about us, you know I’m a data collector. Not an analyst. We wouldn’t risk someone who knows and understands the data on a collection trip.”
“Oh I know.” Five folded his arms. “You do have someone capable of understanding it all among your people, but you haven’t figured that out, have you?”
“What?” Jennifer shook her head.
Five sighed and looked at the ceiling. “I thought not.” He stared into Jennifer’s eyes. “You have 10538 and her brain chip. She can use that to analyse all the data you have collected in minutes, all of it, but she doesn’t know it and neither do you. Did I waste my time arranging for you to capture her?”
“I don’t…” Jennifer shook her head. “I don’t get it. So 10538 is a spy? You arranged for us to rescue her?”
“Oh dear. You people have lived in the wild for so long you’ve almost reverted to animals. Paranoid and acting on instinct.” Five leaned forward. “I’m going to have to explain this as if to a child, aren’t I? If I didn’t need your help I’d just have you thrown into one of the power stations.”
“Help?” Jennifer blinked, confused.
“Shut up and listen.” Five stretched his shoulders. “I’m sure you’ve worked out that the cities are clone colonies, like bees or ants. All the workers have almost the same genetics and their rank is assigned at birth. They live their lives doing pointless jobs and believe they are all doing something important. They have no concept of family, little concept of friends, they are, as you must surely have deduced, fully controlled drones.”
Jennifer licked her lips. This was not going as she expected. “Well, yes, we worked that out some time ago.”
Five nodded. “Did you ever wonder why?”
“Um…” Jennifer struggled with this new line of questioning. It wasn’t the interrogation she expected. “We assumed it was, as you say, to create a race of worker drones.”
“Well, they are useful, particularly the lower drones. The almost-mindless who work the mines and the farms and the power stations. But the city drones, what do you think was their purpose?”
Five snorted. “It’s bloody obvious. You have the data. You just need to read it properly.” He sat back in his chair. “I am four hundred years old. How is that possible?” He raised an eyebrow. “Spare parts. Genetic matches for every organ in my body.” He stood and pulled his onesie down from the neck to display a chest covered with surgical scars. “It’s the same all over me. I’m Frankenstein’s monster. All the remaining city runners are, as are what remains of those above us. The Transhumans, the elite, the ones who started all of this and still control it all.” He coughed. “Some of them don’t really look all that human any more. As the clones producing their own spare parts ran out, they turned to technology.”
Jennifer slumped as far as her bonds would allow. Her mouth worked, her head moved from side to side but she could find no words to express the horror in her mind.
Five replaced his onesie and resumed his seat. He lowered his head. “There is another side to the story. We had developed artificial intelligence, or so we thought. What we had actually invented was a computer system capable of self-awareness, of rational thought, and of self repair. It worked wonderfully at first. It removed all nuclear weapons from the world, and we were delighted.” Five looked up, his face now drawn and tired. “Eventually we realised why it had done that. It was intelligent but it still operated on pure logic. No emotion. No empathy. It had removed nuclear weapons from the world because they were able to destroy all electrical devices – including itself. It wasn’t saving us. It was saving itself.”
Jennifer’s head reeled. “I don’t understand. If it was so out of control, why didn’t you switch it off?”
Five laughed. “It runs everything. The power stations. The farms. The driverless trucks. If we shut it down we go back to the stone age. Nobody is left who knows how to live without it. Other than your people.” He rubbed his face. “No, we need it to lose its autonomy but keep its basic functions running.”
“Well… why not do that?”
Five tapped his forehead. “Brain chips. We’re all linked to it. It’s a symbiosis. It needs just enough humans alive to keep the power stations going and we can’t attack it because it’ll know we’re coming. And it has full control of our robotic military.”
Quentin groaned and shifted in his seat. Five glanced at him. “He’ll wake soon and you’ll have to explain this to him. So pay close attention.” He returned his gaze to Jennifer. “I know it’s a lot to take in for such a young and undeveloped mind. But you have to understand. The cities were cloned drones not because we wanted workers but because we wanted the spare parts. As our bodies wore out, we replaced damaged organs from the city drones. They have no other real purpose. The base workers on the farms, mines and power stations, well we let them breed as they willed. They have some diversity. The cities had almost none.”
Jennifer’s head felt as though it would explode. “You have all this technology. Why are your cities dying?”
Five laughed, harshly. “It didn’t take the AI long to realise what it needed. It needed the power stations. So it also needed the station operators, the miners and the farmers to feed them all. It had no need of us, nor of the cities. When the diseases and disasters came, one by one, the AI saw no reason to help the cities. It let them die. It’s now found ways to operate the mines and power stations with robotic systems. Soon it won’t need those people either.”
“If it doesn’t need the cities, why doesn’t it wipe them out?”
“Same reason it doesn’t try to wipe you out.” Five pursed his lips. “Neither of us pose any real threat to it. Your people have no weapons to speak of. It only tries to catch those of you who break into the system. As for us… we’re no threat as long as we’re controlled by it and dependent on it. If it were to shut off power to a city, it also loses the brain chip connections. It will then have several thousand panicked people and it won’t know what they’re doing. Its simplest course of action is to just wait for us to die.”
Jennifer nodded. “And with pretty much zero diversity in a population, a disease can run riot. I guess that’s what happened?”
“In many cases, yes. There were other disasters but disease was the main one. It had seemed like such a good idea, we thought we could contain any outbreaks but we hadn’t realised how fast a disease could spread among a genetically identical population.” Five ran his hand over his eyes. “The cities are now completely isolated from one another. We can’t risk any intermingling. A disease that’s harmless to one city’s population might be enough to wipe out another city. We have basically locked ourselves into prisons of our own making.”
Quentin groaned again. Five studied him through narrowed eyes. “He will wake soon. There is little time. Will you help me?”
“What the hell do you expect me to do? I’m tied to a fucking chair in your prison.” Jennifer struggled briefly against her bindings, to make her point.
“You won’t be tied for long. I have arranged your escape, as long as you agree to help.”
Jennifer snorted. “I still don’t see what you expect me to do. It’s your AI system, if you can’t turn it off how the hell am I supposed to do it?”
“I told you, I can’t move against it because of the brain chip. It’ll know what I’m thinking.” Five tapped his forehead again. “The city drones are infantilised, they will be no help at all, and anyway the AI knows what they are thinking too. I need you and your people to disable the higher functions of the computer but leave the basic functions running. You can do it. 10538 has the knowledge implanted. You just need to help her access it.”
“Well…” Jennifer furrowed her brow. “If the AI knows what you’re thinking, surely it knows all about this conversation. We’ll all be dead before we leave this room.”
“This room is a Faraday cage.” Five rose from his seat and grinned. “You won’t believe the contortions of speech and thought I had to go through to get this made without even thinking about the reasons I wanted it. It’s been empty since its construction, just waiting.”
“For you. Or someone like you.” Five took a sheet of paper and a USB stick from inside his onesie and placed them on his seat. “The USB stick contains information on how to unlock the program I placed in 10538’s head. She’ll remember me when it activates but she’ll remember me as a different designation. The map will show you the way out of here – you people still use paper maps, I know – and where you can pick up your laptop on the way. There will be nobody in your way because nobody ever gets out of here alive, so there are few guards. I’ve upgraded your firewall too. It won’t be quite so easy to penetrate.”
“If I agree to this, what’s in it for you? Doesn’t it mean the end of your world?”
Five breathed a long slow breath. “This will be hard for you to accept, I know. I want you to leave the cities alone. Oh we’ll all die out eventually but let us have the last of our days in peace. The drones in those cities really can’t be saved, you know. You’re making progress with rehabilitating 10538, I understand, but can you really do that with tens of thousands, in every city?”
Jennifer considered this. “It would be quite a task, it’s true, but how can we let you keep using them as your own personal scrapyard?”
“Consider this.” Five strolled towards her. “Let’s say you decide to shut it all down. All of it. What do you think happens then?” He leaned down to bring his face close to hers. “It all shuts down. The brain chips. Every one of the drones gets back every horrible suppressed memory, all at once. It will drive them insane. The medichips. No more automatic repair of body tissue damage or cancer. No stress suppressors. All their chips will fail. They’ll have no money, no access to anywhere, not even their homes. Worse, it will shut down the power stations, mining operations and all food transport from the farms. You will create thousands upon thousands of wildly insane, starving people who have no comprehension of what is happening to them or why. Do you really consider that a better outcome?”
Jennifer bowed her head. “What you propose is horrifying. We’d have to leave all those people to be taken apart whenever you want.”
“There is only one city runner per city. We don’t need many parts every year. Those above us, the transhumans, are rapidly moving to technological solutions and they will be most affected by the loss of the AI’s higher functions. They are very deeply tied into it. You can expect some very serious resistance from them.”
Jennifer looked into his eyes. “What can you tell me about them?”
Five straightened and waved at the seat he had vacated. “Some of it is on that USB stick. The rest is in 10538’s memory. I can’t give you too much now, I’ve already been offline too long. I have to get back into the AI collective before it notices I’m gone.”
“Huh?” She wrinkled her nose.
Five sighed. “Don’t you understand anything? We’re in a Faraday cage. As far as the AI is concerned, I’m offline. Disappeared. Dead. This doesn’t even happen when I sleep.”
“Then you are taking a huge risk.” Jennifer’s eyes widened. “Is it worth it?”
“Only if you agree to help.” Five grabbed her shoulders. “Look. If the AI succeeds in automating mining and power station functions, it no longer needs those workers. So it no longer needs the farms to feed them. The farms feed us too. We’re only getting food because the AI still needs the farms. Do you see?”
“If it shuts them down, you all starve to death?”
Five nodded. “Including all the drone workers you so nobly want to save. If you shut down the entire system, the same happens. We starve to death either way. So what do you say? Will you help us or will you watch us die?”
Jennifer licked her lips. “There’s really no choice, is there?”
“There is.” Five stepped back from her. “You can let us live in a way you don’t approve of or you can watch us all die. The choice is yours.”
“If we don’t help and the AI takes over, it’s the end of humanity. If we stop the AI and you die slowly, it’s the end of humanity. Talk about Hobson’s choice.”
“Well no, not really.” Five paced the room. “You know, Frankenstinian immortals like me, the Transhumans who are rapidly becoming entirely machines, and the drone peoples we created, well, we can hardly call ourselves human any more. I recognise that. I do. If I could go back I’d have chosen a different path. Perhaps joined your group or one of the others like you.”
“Others?” Jennifer had often wondered about that.
“Indeed.” Five stopped pacing and faced her. “I told you I had been following your group for decades. Others too. I’ve seen your leaders come and go. You were right. I could have had you eradicated at any time but I didn’t.” He sighed as he rested his hands on the back of his seat. “I realised, long ago, when the cities started dying, where our grand experiment was heading. There was nothing I could do about it, the system was fully in place. Our version of humanity was going to expire entirely. Only the AI and the Transhumans would remain. Except…” He bit his lip before continuing. “You people. You’re still fully human. You have families, relationships, friends, genetic diversity. I came from a time when those things were normal, you know. I rejected them and I wish, every day, that I hadn’t.”
Jennifer furrowed her brow. “But if the AI was disabled, couldn’t you go back to that life? To normal life? I mean, it won’t be controlling you any more.”
“We still can’t leave the cities. The disease risk is too great. And the drones in my city can’t cope without me. They’ll need me to administrate the running of the city even more than I need them for a supply of spares.”
“But if the AI is shut down…”
“Only the higher functions. Its basic control of farms, mining and power stations need to be intact.” Five leaned towards her and pointed his finger. “That’s important. I can then take control of distribution of food and so on and the drones won’t know anything has changed.” He took a breath. “If the AI wins and the farms, cities and all the other workers die, it will come for you next. It will not be personal, it’s not capable of that. It will consider the matter simple pest control.” Five paused. “So, will you help us or not?”
Jennifer sat in silence for long moments. Finally she raised her head. “I’ll do it. Or at least, I’ll try.”
Five visibly relaxed. “Thank you. You should know that I realise this will be the end for me and the other city runners. We’ll keep going for a few years, maybe even decades, but it’s going to fall apart at some point. Our experiment has failed – is failing – and I have to admit, part of me is glad it’s nearly over. Four centuries is far too long to be imprisoned, too fearful to set foot outside the city gates.”
“So.” Jennifer wriggled a little. “I guess the first thing is to work out how to get out of this chair.”
“I can fix that.” Five moved behind her. “Don’t move yet. The cameras will come back on and it will look like you did this yourself.”
She felt the ropes on her arms loosen. “What do you mean?”
“Stay still.” Five came back into her line of sight. “When I leave this room, three things will happen. I will use the panel outside to open your route and divert any guards. Then I will turn the cameras back on. Then I will access my brain chip to block my memory of this interview and all the thoughts I had leading up to it. Do not explain any of this to your friend until you are both out of here.” He turned to the door, placed his hand on the handle and turned back. “You will find your people at the location written on the back of the map. Make it look as if you stumbled upon them by accident. Say nothing of me, claim you stole the USB stick and don’t know what’s on it.” His head lowered. “I will not remember any of this. I will be one of those opposing your efforts. It would be nice if you could avoid killing me.” He opened the door, stepped through and closed it.
Jennifer waited a few moments, then wriggled her hands free of the ropes.
Eventually I’ll have all these stories in one place. Eventually.