Truth hurts, delusion comforts. Even the delusions that seem awful are comforting. Conspiracy theories and some religions believe bad things happen for a reason. That there’s a purpose, however evil. A hand on the wheel. That there’s someone to bargain with. To appease, cajole, or combat. That’s the comforting part - that important events are intentional. In reality, the most powerful influences on your life are random conflagrations of unintended consequences. How do you bargain with that?
- Mr Brightside
3 Days Later - Candy - The City
I cruise slowly into town. It was a long trip back. No traffic though. I guess I’m the only gal who’s not where she’s supposed to be.
I’m back on Megacles’ bike. I’m also wearing her helmet, coat, and underwear. Lawbot’s floating along beside me. He’s in the lotus position. His suit looks slept in. He’s like Buddha’s alcoholic lawyer. I don’t usually have legal representation for a drive through town, but I want a second set of eyes. I have a bit of a skull cramp. I don’t know if I look like an alcoholic, but I definitely smell like one. After I sobered up, going to Optimal Head Office didn’t seem like such a good idea. So, I’ve been drinking at night to see if I could remember why I wanted to do it. I meant to stay sober last night, so I’d be sharp today. Didn’t work out.
I stop a few miles from the club. Stretch. Drink a coke. Eat a granola bar. Take a moment to feel my emotions. The sensations in my body. I’m scared. Chest is tight. Maybe have to poo, maybe have to puke. So, no change. I guess this is me for the foreseeable future. Fair enough. Drunk or sober, I haven’t thought up a better plan. Let’s get this done.
Riding through downtown, I see people behaving much as they did in the country. Most of them looking at their phones or partying, with a handful working very fast at some essential task. The new normal, I guess.
As I get closer to the club, there are more drones and robots, and less workers. Eventually, there's no workers, just partiers and phone watchers being tended to by robots.
The partiers are the next group to fade away. Now there’s only phone watchers and the odd robot.
5 kilometers from the club, there’s no one. No robots. Thousands of drones overhead. I pass under the freeway. It’s packed with driverless trucks. Hauling boxes in, rubble out. Alright. There’s a major retrofit project ahead.
4 kilometers out I hit it. Thousands of people gutting buildings and installing lab equipment. The pace is furious. No building is spared the ever widening gyre of science.
Once I get through the retrofit belt, I stop. Turn off the bike. Every building around me is packed with people doing experiments. It’s Project Octopus all over again. That’s cool, but the experiments have spilled onto the streets. There’s just a narrow aisle down the centre. It’s clearly for foot traffic. I guess I’m walking the rest of the way.
Now that my bike is off, I’m struck by how quiet it is. There’s an occasional zappy sound from an experiment, but that’s it. No one is talking. The drones overhead are whisper silent.
“They don’t even notice we’re here.” I say.
“Absolutely not true.” says Lawbot. “They’re all staring at you when you’re not looking.”
I casually look around. Everyone is focused on their work. Right. I fire up the bike. Hammer down the aisle. Let’s get this done.
I pull up to the Sugar Lab. The door is open. I drive right in. Get to the dance floor, wheel the bike around so it’s pointing out the front door. Turn it off. I doubt having a getaway ride prepped is going to help me much, but I’ll be damned before I leave my club out the pizza window again.
I hang Meg’s helmet on the handlebars. Look around. The club looks the same. It’s been spared gutting and retrofitting. But then, it was already filled with lab equipment. Why fix what isn’t broken?
One thing has changed - all the people. That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to see my friends slaving away, ignoring me. Maybe they got kicked out because they wouldn’t stop drinking.
A young man approaches me. “Mr. Salk is waiting for you on the roof.”
“Thanks.” I say. “I know the way.”
I climb the stairs slowly. I’m not looking forward to seeing Deadman. We were friendly once. Very friendly a couple times. That was before we found out about his secret war against Old Money. The people he had put down. All in self defence. Or, defence of others. Don’t blame the guy. Still scared the shit out of us. He was so gentle and a bit goofy. It was like seeing your dog eat a guy. I’m not surprised he was a part the Optimal murders. Killing the purgers to stop their indiscriminate nuking. That’s the kind of dirty, dangerous, responsibility that Deadman would accept. Quiet, ruthless, dangerous. We always figured he was allied with the Darkness.
I get to the roof. Deadman’s there, just how I remember him. Black suit, big grin, smoking a joint. Beautiful and deadly.
He waves me over to the picnic table. Grabs a couple beer from a cooler, cracks them, and joins me. A pizza drone drops a box on the table. The box asks - WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF FEAR WASN’T HOLDING YOU BACK?
“It’s nice to see you Candy. Even under the circumstances.” says Deadman.
I look at the beer and pizza. I’m not eating it. If they want to drug me, they’ll have to shoot me.
“I’m sorry it had to come to this.” he says. “But your world domination attempt is endangering the human race.”
“Hypnosis, and nukes, and an A.I. that can predict people’s actions.” he shakes his head. “Diabolical. I always knew you were trouble. How long have you been working with The Darkness?”
“Nobody hated Old Money the way I did. But, the way you took him out?” he shakes his head. ”I don’t know. Maybe that was the only way. I just… this can’t go on. I have to guard humanity from threats like you.”
He shrugs. “I’m the guardian of humanity.”
I stand. Lean over him. “THE FUCK YOU ARE!!! You mind controlling, murderous, fuckhole! You’re the one working for The Darkness!”
“What?” he says. “Fuck you! You used Troublebot to find all of Old Money’s pledges. Then you used Leviathan, drones trained with hunting strategies, and micro-nukes to take them out. The Optimals were the only balance to your power. But, you had hypno-triggers implanted in millions people. You were going to move on the Optimals, choke them out. The only thing that stopped you was the Optimal Uprising. Anyway, it’s not really mind control. More like mind alteration.”
“Okay. The nukes weren’t me. Uh… they may have been from guys I know. Leviathan and Trouble were supposed to help people. The hypnosis was just for sex. Are you really not working for The Darkness?” He nods. “Well, what the fuck has she been doing?” He shrugs.
I sigh. Grab his joint. My beer. Smoke and drink. Sit. What kind of pizza is this. It looks good. Eat some.
“Tell me about the Optimals.” I say. “How are you controlling them?”
“I’m not.” He smiles. “Maybe a little.”
“Why so modest? It’s just you, me, and the mindslaves.”
“Woof. I wish.” He takes a drink. “The Optimal Job Experiment started with a question. Why are there no more jobs, when there is still so many things that people need? Depression, addiction, suicide, oppression, inequality, injustice, poverty, racism. All these things still need work. Also, there’s still cool stuff we all want. Spaceships, jet boots, a fucking teleporter. We’d finally freed ourselves from our daily grind. We had the time to tackle these problems. But, we weren’t really doing it. There was something holding us back.
“Most people thought it was some kind of economic obstacle, but the Optimal Corporation suspected that it was a malaise. A mental misfire in our reward system. We could still work hard. We could still enjoy hard work. But, we’d lost our mental connection between this work and it’s rewards. Our future had become a slog.”
He takes a drink. “Are you familiar with Predictive Brain Theory?”
“Of course. Explain it anyway.”
“Your brain is constantly trying to guess the future. Thoughts, feelings, imagination, dreams, anxieties. That entire inner narrative that runs all the time. It’s an attempt to make an accurate model of your universe, so you know what happens next.
“There’s a practical reason for this. Your brain is much slower than you think it is. Much slower. If you had to rely on perceptions and reaction time to catch a ball, you’d be hit in the face before you noticed it’d been thrown. Instead your brain shows you an imaginary world that’s its best guess of a few seconds in the future. This gives you enough time to react. Or, a few seconds to completely fuck your life when you guess the wrong future. It’s not a perfect system.
“So, you’ve got thousands of models of the future. You work on them constantly. Daydreaming about being attacked. Planning arguments. Rejections. Guessing the end of people’s sentences. All so you can make life changing decisions completely on autopilot. It’s amazing. A hot mess, but amazing.
“Surprise is a vital part of the process. It’s reality knocking on the door. Letting us know when our model needs updating. Surprise is great. So satisfying when we’re relaxed and safe. Terrifying when we’re in action.
“Sometimes you’re not observant enough to be surprised. You get lost in future that isn’t happening. Depression. Delusion. Racism. Flat Earth. Incel. Voting for Captain Industry. Not pretty.
“This is what the Optimals thought was happening. That we’d collectively got lost in a future that wasn’t happening. Like that time human progress was stalled for 40 years because we blamed all our problems on taxes and minorities. The real problem was more subtle.
“Part of predicting our future is deciding what we want our future to be. How to use the time we have. Sometimes the answer to this question is easy. If you’re on your deathbed, you have to live for the moment. If you’re pregnant, you got to plan ahead. But what if you have no idea how much time you have? What if you have more options than you could ever try? How do you decide what to do then? Maybe you don't.
“As technological progress accelerates, our personal options increase. There’s more stuff you can do, but you can’t do it all. There isn’t time. Or, is there? Fresh Start exists. Maybe you can live forever. But there’s also the God Machine, so you could be wiped out at any time. So, you have millions of ways to spend your life, and could live forever, or maybe you’re already dead and just don’t know it yet. This situation makes it impossible to predict your future. It became a math problem we couldn’t solve, so we just wandered around stunned. This is the malaise. An inability to predict the future that has left us all stuck.
“We found a way to fix that. With drugs!
“The Optimal drugs are basically amnesiatics. The yellow pills make you forget the past and future. The blue pills make you forget the present.”
“That’s it?” I ask.
“That’s it.” says Deadman. “On the yellow pills, everything is new and fresh. Worries are non-existent. Routine activities are interesting. Simple pleasure’s sublime. It’s a blissful experience.
“The blue pills give you a laser-like focus on long term projects. Hard work for nearly imperceptible progress feels rewarding. No goal is too distant. No project too large. The most boring activity will be attacked with great enthusiasm if it’s a necessary step towards a desired future.
“Neither drug is addictive, though I am not aware of anyone who has stopped doing them.”
I think. This is a lot to take in. “What about the mind control? I thought someone was in control of all this. Who’s pulling the strings?”
He shrugs. “Nobody. I mean, in the beginning this was a company. We had investors and a board of directors and management. The original Optimals were employees. They did what they were told, or they didn’t get paid. That structure didn’t last long. Ten thousand people on blue pills were incredibly fast at solving huge, complicated, problems. The kind of R&D that takes decades, we were doing in hours. Of course we turned the guns on ourselves, and asked them to make the company more efficient. The investors, board, management, and our paltry goals were quickly identified as crippling inefficiencies. They left us behind, morphed into a rapid response relentless innovation machine that conceived and implemented a global mind alteration situation.
“I’m still here as CEO because I’m very careful. I only ask for what they want to do anyway.”
“So they wanted the Uprising?” I ask.
He nods. “While you can physically take either drug indefinitely, there are outside consequences. Extended periods on either drug result in a loss of social cohesion. Whether you work constantly, or party constantly, the people around you get sick of your bullshit. You end up ostracized, and function sub-optimally. The obvious solution was to have the pills metered out by an outside party. We fucked that up when we lost control of the experiment. The contingency plan was to have both pills available, so people could alternate and still function in society. The third solution was to destroy society, and remake it in a form that was more accommodating to certain drug habits.” Deadman drinks. Smokes. “We didn’t think of this third solution when we set up the experiment. We were dummies.”
We eat the pizza. Get a second round. Deadman rolls another.
“That’s a lot to take in.” I say.
“It’s been a busy week.” He says.
“Fuck, has it only been a week?” I ask.
I smoke. Look at Deadman. He’s not such a bad guy. I wonder if he ordered the Optimal murders. I’m not going to ask him. It doesn’t matter. Someone had to stop the nukes, and someone did. Let’s leave it at that.
I think of the fun Deadman and I used to have. Man, I stink. When was the last time I had a shower? I recall that Deadman was a tenacious lover. Unfazed by complications. I sweep the table clean. Get on it. Pull him towards me. We make love. Afterwards, I apologize for my hygiene. Shower. Fuck again. I really go for it. I’m a tenacious lover too.
We get dressed. Restock the table.
“Alright. What are the Optimals doing now? Where’s this all going?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” He says. “They’re madly off in all directions. The Optimals have a shared methodology. There’s near universal cohesion with their procedures and tactics. There’s no consensus with their goals. As far as I can tell, they’re up to everything.”
“So, the human race is doing what they’ve always done, just a whole lot faster?”
“Yes.” He says. “That’s accurate.”
“Alright. What are you doing now? What’s your plan?” Let’s see what my fellow guardian has in the tank.
“I’ve got a bit of influence left.” He sighs. “I’m going to try to shift as many people as possible to the yellow pills.”
“The full-time blue pill Optimals scare the shit out of me. They’re brilliant. And savage. Anti-social. They only value other humans as links in their toolchain. It’s not good. They have a new version of the blue pills that suppresses your sixth chromosome. It makes you immune to fear, pain, hunger, and sleep. Hard to imagine that ending well.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t sound good.” I say. “What’s the advantage to the yellow pills?”
“Happiness? Life is complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s pretty easy to give people a perfect life. All you need is an A.I. that can monitor emotions, a hypno-clone, and a little amnesia.”
“You’d trap people in a delusion?”
“The human experience is all delusion. If we have a good one, how can we ethically withhold it?”
An eleven dimensional construct forms on the roof. It looks like two croissants fucking. Doc-Danger walks through. He looks rough. Haunted.
“Where’s Megacles?” he says.
“What the fuck do you mean - Where’s Megacles?” I say. “She left. Looking for you!”
He hangs his head. “She never found me.”
“Well, let’s go find her!” I say.
“It’s worse out there than you could possibly imagine.” He shakes his head. “If she followed me, she’s dead.”
I hop the table. Slam my forehead into his face. Drive my elbow into his diaphragm. There’s a loud pop. He’s gone. He took the top floor of the club with him. I fall into the apartments below. I pop up, dukes up. There’s no Doc-Danger. He’s gone.
Deadman surfaces from a pile of dirty laundry. He looks at me warily. I put my dukes away. Pull him up. Push him against the wall. Kiss him.
“Your plan’s crap.” I say. “I like a good delusion as much as the next girl, but we have miles to go before we sleep.”
I pull a small red oval from my pocket. “Let’s introduce our monsters. This is Doc-Danger’s Micro Lab. It’s hellaciously complicated, but I bet a few billion blue pill Optimals can make a God Machine out of it in a week or two. Let’s get this done.”
Deadman is looking at the micro lab. I know what he’s thinking. My plan is crap too. Giving a couple billion sociopaths a doomsday device isn’t ideal. Fuck it. If this is the great filter, we need to power through it. Slowing down will kill us faster.
Deadman nods. He’s in. Ostensibly. Fair enough. I need a teleporter. And quickly. If he deals me dirty, well, teleportation solves a lot of problems.
We kiss. I feel light. I notice the laundry around us is floating. I look up. It’s midday, but the sky is jet black. I see the sun get pulled to the side, spaghettified, sucked into the darkness. I start to float. It’s a supermassive black hole. I soar towards it.