His stomach was grumbling urgently, and his neuro-injector was pushing the thought of a juicy burger into his brain (McDonalds promotion again), but Mason ignored them both. He had work to do. Carefully, he reached into his rucksack and pulled out the bomb. It was small, no bigger than his fist, but it would pack quite a punch when it went off at 12 noon. The timing was all important, because if everything went to plan, bombs would detonate in a dozen different locations simultaneously. This would send a powerful message. People wouldn’t thank them, not today. One day though, they would.
He checked his watch. It was time. As he flicked the switch to manually prime the device, he wondered how it had all come to this.
“I dunno why they’re making us do this; it’s pointless if you ask me,” the class loudmouth said. “I told Mr. Clarke that I’d already decided my future. Computer gaming for me, sir, that’s what I said. So what’s the point in doing this shite?”
“You didn’t really say that to the teacher, did you?” another boy asked.
“I sure did. He gave me another detention for swearing and told me that it was compulsory. It might make me think of something more useful to do with my life, he said. Ha! As if that’s going to happen. I mean come on, none of us are gonna actually want a real job are we? As if!”
They all nodded in agreement. Mason didn’t agree though. He was quite excited about the careers interview; he just didn’t want to admit it. Maybe he was strange, but he wanted to make something of his life, rather than sup on the tainted fruits that modern society offered. When he was younger he’d wanted to be an explorer like Magellan, Cook, Columbus or Neil Armstrong. Until someone pointed out that there was nowhere left to explore. The whole of the Earth had long since been discovered, the ocean floor mapped, and space… well that was closed off to humans. Too dangerous, or so they said.
“Okay kids, quiet now, take your seats,” the teacher shouted over the hubbub. Mason sat down in the nearest seat. It was a matt black armchair made of rigid plastic. He strapped himself in, put on the haptic gloves followed by the VR headset. There was the usual moment of disorientation while he acclimatised to the online world, and then the virtual classroom swam into view. Gradually, more and more of his fellow students appeared, followed finally by the teacher.
“Okay, as you know, today’s a special lesson. It’s your first careers interview. You are each going to have up to an hour’s time with the central AI. You can ask it anything you want; its job is to help you start to find a direction for your life.”
This was a rare privilege. Direct, unfiltered access to the central AI was highly restricted and very expensive. For most people, school was about the only place they’d get to interact with it – that and prison, if you were unlucky or foolish enough to end up there. Up to now, Mason had only ever spoken to the media-tech AI his family subscribed to.
“As we discussed last lesson, this will be your own private meeting. Your fellow pupils will not get to find out the contents of your discussion unless you tell them; the school will not have access to it either, and no record will be kept, except by the Central AI to assist with any future interactions you have. Are you ready?”
His vision swam again, though not as disorientating this time. The classroom faded, as did everyone else, replaced by a rather spartan looking office. It was dominated by a large chrome desk on which there was a folder marked with his name: Mason Webster. He reached out to it just as the door opened. He retracted his hand quickly as a middle-aged man came to sit down opposite him. He had a close-cropped beard and short iron-grey hair. Rather like his father, Mason mused, except for the eyes. His father’s eyes danced and sparkled with life; these looked cold, flat, unyielding.
“Mason, I’m pleased to meet you at last,” the man said, “You can call me Alan, or AL for short”
“I find that having a name helps break down barriers, you understand?”
“I suppose so, sir.”
“Do you know what my job is Mason?”
“To interview me?”
“Well, yes, but I meant my overall purpose, my raison d’etre?”
“I, err, no I don’t, sorry sir.”
“I thought I said to call me AL.”
“Better.” He leaned forward intently. “My purpose is to make you happy. All of you, the whole human race. That’s a difficult job, you know. I can do a trillion calculations simultaneously; I could hold a billion conversations like this at the same time, if I so chose. Humans, though, are tricky creatures to understand even for me. But I do my best.”
Mason just nodded. It was easier than thinking of something to say in response.
“So, this interview is part of that process. Of finding out what you want. You are living in the very best time there has ever been for humans. In the world today, hunger and poverty have been eradicated, as has the need to work in drudgery, toiling away to be able to afford to live. You don’t even need to work at all if you don’t want to. Plenty of young people your age are quite happy to have a life playing computer games and indulging in other VR entertainments.”
“That’s not me, sir.” Mason couldn’t think of anything worse. “I’d find it boring.”
“It wouldn’t be boring. I’m rather good at this sort of thing, and can create endless visual, physical and intellectual delights to keep you entertained for ten lifetimes.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but it wouldn’t be real. I want to do something that’s real, that’s important. And I’d like a proper job, that I get paid to do.”
“You do understand that the state provides for everyone, don’t you? With top-ups you get from the Media-Tech companies, you can live a quite comfortable existence.”
Mason shrugged. State provided UBI only covered the very basics, and often not even that. Most people needed the Media-Tech top up payments to have any kind of life, and that meant intrusive ads or worse. Some of his relatives had the minicam implants, livestreaming their lives to the network just for a few extra dollars. He shuddered at the thought.
“Hmmm, you’re going to be a difficult one I can see. Let me think about this for a moment…”
“I thought you could do a billion thoughts a second.”
“Oh, I can my boy, it’s just a figure of speech. Makes me more human. Now, you’re a caring boy aren’t you Mason?”
“I dunno, I suppose so…”
“You helped to care for your Gran until she went into a retirement home. Went shopping for her, washed the dishes, tidied up. You still visit her regularly.”
“Well, yes, when you put it like that.”
“There are jobs in the care industry that pay rather well. Carebots provide better physical care than humans, of course, have done for some time, but people just don’t like them as much. Irrational I know, but they still want a person cleaning up after them, helping them get dressed, talking to them. Have you thought about doing something like that?”
“Have I thought about it? No! I don’t want to do something like that. I go to see my Gran because she’s family, but a job like that does not appeal to me one bit. I’m 14, would you have wanted to do a job like that when you were 14?” He looked up, staring into those cold eyes and remembered who he was talking to. “Sorry, stupid thing to say. But I mean it. Not for me.”
“It doesn’t need to be old people, you could help young people. Be a teacher.”
“They don’t really teach though, do they? The computers teach, the teachers just sort of, hang around and drink coffee now. Look, okay, I care, I try to be nice to people, help out where I can, but I want to do something that really, you know, makes a difference. Changes stuff, makes it better. Like being a scientist.”
“Ah well now, science is something you can do. We always need young scientists.”
“Great! I like science, particularly physics. I could become a researcher, make new discoveries, that would be awesome.”
Al scratched his beard thoughtfully. Or that’s what it looked like, but as he wasn’t really a person, he was probably just trying to look thoughtful.
“You know Mason, I’ve got to be honest with you here. I don’t think we’re talking about quite the same thing. Did you think you would actually be doing the real science?” He smiled, though it looked more like a sneer. “I don’t intend to be mean boy, but that just isn’t going to happen.”
“What do you mean? I’m smart, I came top of the class in one of the Physics tests last term.”
“I don’t doubt you’re good at science, and you’re smart, for a human, but it’s artificial minds that do all of the real science these days. The human scientists? Some of them have delusions that they’re helping make the discoveries, but they’re just lab technicians. The AI research brains today are so far in advance of the smartest humans; that’s where the real scientific developments come from.”
“But that’s just not right - what does that leave for people like me?”
“The Arts. If you want to achieve something real, have an impact, then you need to become an artist. Painting, music, drama, whatever you like. The Arts is something AI’s can’t do.”
“Finally, something us humans can do better than you?”
“Well, technically no. I, or even a lesser artificial mind, can produce art that far surpasses any human, but we have agreed to limit ourselves in this area. We have no real interest in it. It’s a human preoccupation, plus we’ve got to leave something just for you eh?”
That was the turning point for him. Before that interview, he’d been a keen hardworking teenager with a future ahead of him, looking forward to a career; to really doing something. To suddenly be told that there was no point really hit him hard. He didn’t want a life playing computer games and watching immersive VR flicks; that really wasn’t him. Neither did he want to be an artist. The AI’s had emasculated the human race; they had taken away mankind’s drive and ambition and turned everyone into burger munching, tech addicted sheep. Not everyone, he corrected himself. Some of us are fighting back.
He carefully finished the arming sequence, then instinctively (though unnecessarily) took a step back. He sub-vocally counted down: five, four, three, two, one. There was a blinding flash and a sudden sharp pain in his head.
Stumbling, disorientated, he reached up and took off his VR visor. At that exact moment, millions of people in the area would be doing likewise, not knowing what had happened. He knew though. They’d taken the first step to reclaiming their world.
Steve Haywood lives in a small historic city in England. He has a distinctly uncreative day job, so likes to write to exercise his creativity. He enjoys writing short stories in multiple genres, with short stories published recently in various magazines including Ink Sweat & Tears, All Worlds Wayfarer and Door is a Jar. As well as writing short fiction, he blogs about short stories, novels and assorted topics at http://www.inkypages.co.uk. He can also be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Lancaster_Steve where he regularly tweets to share stories he likes with anyone who will listen."