“I had a skill, you see,” the guy said. His long hair fell wetly across his forehead, and a deep gash ran the length of his jaw on the left.
“Yeah. I was a storyteller.” He laughed bitterly. “A Storyteller Third Class. And here I thought I’d been producing art and would soon see my name on the bestseller lists, my stories in The New Yorker. Nope. The machines weighed me, measured me and found me third class. Still, I guess I was lucky to make the cut.”
I looked him up and down. He didn’t look like he was about to explode or anything, but it was better to be safe than sorry. “I don’t see what that could possibly have to do with crossing the plain of death.”
“It has everything to do with it.”
“No. You’ve got me locked up here in a cell. I’ve been through the wars and all you can do is throw me on a chair and ask me questions?” He raised an eyebrow. “Well I won’t answer anything until you start treating me decently.”
“So what do you want?”
He hesitated, wondering how far he could play his hand. “Can I have something to drink?”
I almost laughed. That was his big demand? “Didn’t you get anything?”
Someone had screwed up. But, of course, this outpost expected a huge battle, a sudden invasion across the border executed by terrifying war engines run by machine tacticians smarter by an order of magnitude than anything we could field. A terrified guy covered with mud, escaping through the rain, was not something they’d trained up for.
“All right. What do you want? Coffee?”
“You have coffee?”
That caught me off guard. “Of course. Why wouldn’t we?”
“It’s supposed to be bad for you. The minds have weaned us off the stuff for our own good.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” I replied. “I was just a kid when you guys declared yourselves independent. Do you want cream and sugar with that?”
He goggled as if I’d offered to sacrifice a clutch of virgins, so I just walked out and told the guard by the door to bring us some coffee and something to eat. He looked at me funny, but said he might be able to scrounge up some donuts. I thanked him and went back inside.
“They’re bringing the drinks.”
“Can you take off my handcuffs?”
“I don’t have the keys.”
I laughed. “Because my bosses think that if they’d given me the keys, I would have unlocked you.”
He thought about it. “They’re afraid of me?”
“You’re the first thing other than propaganda messages to get out of California. We’re all wondering what the machines decided to send us. At least if you have the capacity to brainwash me, I won’t be able to let you go.”
“Brainwash?” He shook his head. “Dude, I’m just a writer. According to the machines, a bad one.”
“And still, you escaped.”
“Because I really wanted to, and I believed that if I made them choose between killing me and letting me walk, they’d let me walk. I was right.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The machines have a mandate: to protect human life. It’s kind of like Asimov’s old laws, but they are sophisticated enough to actually weigh things for the greatest good, so there’s none of that conflict. They just do what’s best for the greatest number, but when it’s just one guy trying to cross a minefield and beam killing ground, they just turn the defenses off.”
I had no idea what the guy was on about. “They sound like a bunch of commies to me.”
“Nah. The machines aren’t political. They couldn’t care less about all that crap we used to get so excited over.”
“Also, they don’t just turn the defenses off. We tried to send people through a few times… They’re still in the killing field, but I don’t think there’s anything larger than a finger left of any of them.”
He shrugged. “I guess it only goes for the citizens under their protection.”
The Colonel was less than impressed. “So what you’re saying is that we could get in as long as one of their own people is trying to get out at the same time?”
He glared at me. “You’re an idiot, Johnson. Get out.”
I left, secure in the knowledge that he was going to steal my idea. If it worked, he’d get the credit. If it didn’t, I’d get the blame.
I didn’t care. What was the worst that could happen? I was way too senior to bust back down to Captain.
The other shoe dropped a week later.
“Me, sir? I’m not a combat soldier.”
“This mission doesn’t call for combat soldiers. It calls for infiltration troops, and you’re supposed to be good at that.”
“Yes, sir, but…”
“No buts, Johnson. It’s an order. Besides, it was your idea.” The Colonel chomped on his cigar. Where he’d gotten a cigar was anyone’s guess. Tobacco had been outlawed ten years ago. The cigar was a message, as if one was needed, that the Colonel could do whatever the hell he wanted. “Look on the bright side. You’re on an open budget. Ask for whatever you want, and you’ll get it. The only condition is that you’ve got sixty days to cross over. If you haven’t done so in that time, I’ll have the MPs toss you into the killing zone and film you getting atomized. That should go viral quickly, and I’ll get some serious ad revenue.”
He left me shaking my head; say what you want about his methods, but the man certainly knew how to motivate people.
I turned to a lieutenant. He must have been just out of the Point, because he hadn’t had the sense to run for cover. “You. You’ve just been seconded to this project, so stop gaping and go get the prisoner.”
“Which prisoner, sir?”
“We only have one, Lieutenant.”
“I’m not going back to California,” the writer said. Someone had taken off his cuffs.
“Yes, you are. You just haven’t accepted it yet,” I told him. “Now, I think the machines might recognize you as one of their citizens and let us pass, just because you’re aboard… but I’m not willing to bet my life on that. What do you think?”
“I think you’re insane. Why would you want to go into California?”
“We’ve got to get in in order to sabotage the machines from the inside.”
“That’s stupid. How many people are you going to take over the border?”
“Five. Two demolitions experts, you and me and, of course, the lieutenant.”
“You’re going to try to take down the machines with five people? That’s insane.”
“Four people. I’m only taking the lieutenant along because I don’t like him.”
He stared, obviously unsure of what to say. I wasn’t actually nuts, but I wanted to see what he said. It had been ten years since we’d had contact with the people of California, the first—and thus far only—place on Earth that had voted to allow the Technocracy: rule by a sextet of computers designed and programmed to optimize the well-being of the population. His responses should be informative, or at least give an indication of how much he remembered of his time before the Secession.
“Do you mean that? About the lieutenant, I mean? He’s not necessary to the mission?”
“Of course. Bastard gets on my nerves. Serves him right to get shot to pieces or brainwashed by a bunch of boxes that go ping.”
“But… that’s not… right.”
“Spare me your machine morality. I have a job to do, and I’m supposed to do it how I feel fit.”
“This has nothing to do with the machines. It’s a question of human decency.”
“What do you know about human decency? Didn’t you vote to let the computers rule over you?” Even if he hadn’t, the machines had allowed dissenters to leave before closing the border.
“Sure I did. I already told you. I was a writer, which essentially meant I had to pay off student loans I’d used for a degree that would never pay for itself, and a job at the local coffee shop. It was either that or let the human politicians keep screwing me over.”
“Let me get this straight. You were a barista, and the machines made you a writer. Third class or whatever, but you were a writer, and you could survive just by being a writer.”
“And you still left? I’d think that of all people, you would have had reason to stay. The bankers would still be bankers, the cops would still be cops, but you got every dream you ever had handed to you on a plate. Hell, you’re the worst double agent ever. No wonder no one even blinked when I told them I was going back over the line with you. They think you’re worthless.”
“There are no more bankers. No more cops, either.”
“No need. There’s nothing you can steal. The machines ensure that everyone has whatever they want.”
“Surely, there’s still stuff people want. Original artwork. Exotic cars. Stuff that can’t be mass produced.”
“All of that belongs to everyone now. There’s no market. And if you want a car, the machines will build you one faster than anything built before.”
“And no one kills other people? Or starts a riot? Or gets drunk and disorderly?”
“Not really. There are stun drones everywhere. Things are stopped before they get out of hand… and if it looks like it was more than just an isolated incident you go to reeducation.”
I shuddered. I could just imagine the needles and the brainwashing apparatus at a reeducation center. “Ugh.”
“It’s not what you think. A lot of people get themselves sent to reeducation on purpose. It’s pretty nice. Sex, music and drugs. Only the ones that don’t damage you permanently, of course.”
“And you want me to believe that you just walked away from all of that?”
“Yes. You don’t understand.”
“I do. I just don’t believe you. Explain why you left.”
“Then you actually are useless.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t make you understand, I just said that I couldn’t tell you.”
“Pretty much the same thing.”
“No. It isn’t. I’ll show you.”
“So you’re coming after all?”
The tech dweeb didn’t want to hear it.
“Will you just try?” I said.
“All right, but it’ll probably screw up the entire comm system for weeks.”
“I trust you’re good enough to fix it before then.”
He sighed, but obeyed. Everyone on base knew the Colonel’s orders: I could have whatever I wanted as soon as I wanted it. A couple of IT guys opened an access panel, climbed in and began to curse.
Eventually, a head popped out. The tech was a young blond woman who looked too young to be allowed anything as complicated as the comms system. She glared at me.
“You’re still here?”
“Hand me that wrench.”
“Here you go.”
“You should probably go away. Come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to have to change some transmitters in the modulator, and we don’t know if the parts work at all. Those frequencies haven’t been used in decades.” She shook her head in disgust. “We’ll all get court marshalled for listening to you instead of carting you off to the loony bin, but the Man’s gotta be obeyed.” She disappeared back into the access panel.
They were probably right, but I had to test what our prisoner was telling me. Had the machines really put their entire civilian communication network onto the old TV station frequencies?
No wonder no one had been able to locate them.