By Philip CK
Local scientist receives Queen’s Award. What a great honor for my friend Bethany. I have been curious to see what today’s paper would say, for the last 20 years. You see, today is the day Bethany would get life in prison.
I met her when I started Secondary School. She stood behind me at the Sorting line. Always the Lady, Bethany introduced herself by pouring her orange juice in my t-shirt. When I felt something cold ran down my back, I jumped with a shriek and turned around to see a tall girl smiling at me. Her intimidating look consisted of a tank top, tight black jeans, and black boots. The cuts on her cheekbones, one on each side, and bruised knuckles were lovely touches, I admitted.
“What, geek?” she asked with a big grin.
I was expecting bullying to start sometime during the following week but, hey, the first day was as good as any.
“I thought I’d cool you down a bit,” continued Bethany. “Aren’t you gonna say thank you?”
“G… g…” I believe I was searching for ‘Get stuffed.’ My swearing of choice. Not too aggressive but not too soft either. Not that it made a difference, whether I managed to utter the stupid words or, like that day, not. I choked and started coughing.
“Oh, what’s wrong darling?” said Bethany in a mock sympathetic tone. “Are you d.. d… dumb?”
Classy. Everyone roared with laughter. I faced forward again, disgusted with myself, trying to hold the tears in.
“Dumb, dumb, dumbo! Dumb, dumb, dumbo!” chanted the other kids, at Bethany’s lead, clapping their hands and stomping their feet.
I was only saved by The Sorting, a few moments later.
I entered a room with a single dentist’s chair in the middle, facing a desk with three individuals.
“Hello, em, Susan Jones,” said the middle one, an old hag if I had ever seen one, complete with chin hair and a lovely crooked nose. “I am Mrs. Haggard, the Headmistress.”
Off course you are, I wanted to say.
“Have a seat.”
When I did, the chair tilted backward. Haggard’s robots came and strapped my arms and legs to the chair. We all knew about The Sorting so I tried not to panic. “Deep breathing helps,” they had told us.
A helmet-like device came from the back of the chair and the Operatives strapped it around my head. They then attached various sensors on my face and lifted my t-shirt to attach more on my chest. I flinched when they inserted two needles in my forearms and shivered at the cold sensation from whatever liquid they pumped in my veins.
“Good to go,” said one of the robots.
I’m also good thanks for asking, I thought.
“Proceed,” said Haggard.
The room went pitch dark. Loud, intermittent bangs pounded in my head. Deep inside my cranium, in a place headaches never reached, a sharp pain made its appearance. On a scale from one to ten, it started at five and, within seconds, reached eleven. Involuntarily, a scream came out.
“Almost there,” said a robot.
If you kick a robot in the crotch does it hurt? I wondered.
The pain moved to the back of my skull and traveled down, inside my spine, inch by aching inch. For good measure, it came back up, took a stroll around my brain one and then it was gone. The only remaining sound came from the rattling equipment. I couldn’t stop shaking.
Lights came back on, blinding me as if I was being interrogated (well, I suppose in a way I was) and the chair tilted to a seating position. I was released from my shackles.
“The computer will add the data it collected to your file,” said the Headmistress.
My file was, basically, every piece of data that had been collected during my unremarkable life. Even before it started, actually. Every conversation in my house, through the ever listening microphones of sound-activated devices. A complete record of all my movements through my parents’ phones, and my phone as soon as I had one. Every piece of food that had gone into my body, from shopping carts and card payments. Naturally, exhaustive records of my health, including how many bleeding times I had brushed my teeth. Toys I had played with. TV programs I had watched. Every opinion I had expressed about everything.
A message arrived simultaneously to Haggard’s phone and mine. From the Ministry of The Future. “Susan Red, you have been assigned to Bedrock class. Congratulations. You will contribute to the strong base of our society.”
A moment of silence.
“That’ll be all, then. Register in building C. Have a great school year,” said Haggard and I made my usual graceful exit by tripping on my laces.
Students with zero potential went to Bedrock classes. The Government didn’t spend a lot of money on Bedrock people because why waste valuable resources that could be used elsewhere. Bedrocks got one year of job training, instead of an education, and started working straight after that.
That way there was more money to spend on the Ores, the high potentials. Their education was excellent and continued until their early twenties. There was a middle ground too, the Faithfuls, who learned some basic reading and writing, and bits of maths. They would become machine programmers.
I’m sure Bedrock class met and exceeded everyone’s expectations, as it did mine. We received training for important jobs in the hospitality industry. Cleaning, mainly. There were a lot of areas in a hotel, we learned, all with their specific cleaning requirements. And a lot of appliances that needed maintenance. I thought our old robot teacher could use some of that. It was rusty and slow, and its voice module was damaged, making it sound like my drunk grandpa.
I didn’t make any friends. Bethany made some. Well, she formed a gang, really. They’d slap the rest of us nerds on the back of our heads, or trip us, or kick our cleaning equipment, scattering them across the class. The teacher didn’t pay any attention to that. Outside its scope, I’d say. As for Haggard, I never saw her again. Some students did, Bethany and her gang, predominantly.
Haggard’s robots came from time to time and took someone to detention.
“What?” the culprit said, invariably.
“This afternoon you will break a window,” the robot answered.
Mischief Anticipation & Neutralisation (MAN) was the equivalent to Crime Anticipation & Neutralisation (CAN) in the grown-ups world. Like CAN, MAN’s artificial intelligence would analyze behavioral patterns through hundreds of cameras, installed everywhere imaginable, and predict mischief.
Both systems were foolproof, apparently. CAN had been tested for years, issuing warnings about crimes, which materialized later. It was right every time. Nowadays crime was a distant memory. The more serious crime, actually. CAN didn’t bother with petty crime. Just as MAN didn’t bother with Bethany punching me in the stomach. If school property was at stake, then the robots interfered.
You can imagine our surprise when Crime Anticipation showed up at school, one day. It was during the first period. I was repairing a dishwasher and Bethany was beating her gang’s members at arm wrestling. The CAN robots barged in.
“Everyone place your hands behind your heads,” their leader announced in a male, authoritative tone, and we complied instantly.
“What is going on, officers?” squeaked our teacher.
The leader shushed him by raising his palm. The police robots moved to Bethany.
“Bethany Cage,” the leader said, “you are sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for car theft this evening.”
“No, I won’t do it, I won’t!” said Bethany. “I swear!”
It was pointless. The machines didn’t say anything else. A quick jab put Bethany to sleep and she was carried out. We looked at each other in horror.
“Now, let me show you how to unclog a sewage pipe,” said our teacher.
When Bethany came back she was different. Her eyes were washed out like she had been crying a lot. A tooth was missing. And she was double the bully she used to be. Each and every one of us got a daily beating, to keep us on our toes, I suppose. Whenever she approached me I crouched down, in the position you took when your plane was about to crash.
“That’s right, dumbo!” she said and spat on me before the kicking began.
Eventually, my hatred for her grew stronger than my self-preservation instinct. What’s the worst that could happen, I told myself. I’ll just fight back, there’s nothing to lose really, apart from a promising career, of course. At least I’ll get to lay a punch if I’m lucky. I repeated these thoughts in my head for a few days, and one morning I came to school ready for everything. But not for what was about to happen.
Before class even started Mischief Anticipation came in.
“Bethany and Susan,” one of them said, “you’re in detention for the whole day.”
I couldn’t believe it.
“What?” said Bethany. “What will dumbo do?” causing the obligatory sneer from the gang.
“Wh.. wh..” I said, eloquently as always. What will I do, in case you’re wondering.
“Your lunchtime fight will result in school property damage,” the robot said.
“Fight?” Bethany and The Baboons laughed idiotically.
As I had expected, the detention room did not have leather armchairs and a good selection of movies. Not even popcorn. No matter, it had other qualities. It smelled of urine, for example. Bethany sat on a pallet of toilet paper, her back against the wall. I tried to get comfortable on some cardboard boxes. We ignored each other but it couldn’t last long. There was nothing to do there. And ever since I learned that I would have fought her that day I was a tiny bit braver.
“H… how was j… jail?” I asked.
“Shut up, dummy,” said Bethany.
And I simply have I had enough. Of bullying Bethany, of my illustrious education, of being the bedrock of civilized society, of everything. I stood up and grabbed a broom.
“Bring it on, Bethany!” I said and took what I thought was a plausible defensive stance. Probably comical but at least my stutter had gone. In any case, Bethany didn’t laugh. Or attacked. She simply stared at me or rather in my direction but a million miles away for a moment. And then she sighed.
That’s a first, I thought.
“I will spend most of my life in jail,” she said.
A small part of me was delighted. Or half of me. OK, all of me. If anyone should rot in jail, that was Bethany.
“On my thirtieth birthday,” she continued, “ I will get life in prison. For murder.”
Murder? I supposed it was the natural course of things.
“Who will you kill?” I asked. Still no stutter, could it be true?
“Everyone in a rival gang.” She reached out in her back pocket and retrieved a folded piece of paper. “They have a new system in jail. Like ‘The Sorting’ but ten times better. This is what it printed out for me.”
It looked like a newspaper clipping. Local gang leader gets life in prison, the title said. Bethany Cage (30) arrested before wiping out rival gang.
“But…” I said.
“I’ll go to jail many times. This will just be the last one.”
“But that’s ages away. It might not happen.”
“The system is always true.”
“Actually, there is a 1% probability, on average, that the system’s prediction will not materialize.”
I know what you’re thinking. How did I know what “1%” meant, or “probability”, or some of the other long words that had been used? But I didn’t say all those things.
We turned and saw a small figure emerging from the room’s dark corner. It was a girl in cleaner’s clothes. We recognized her, she was the Janitor’s assistant.
“What the hell?” said Bethany and moved to confront the newcomer, probably punch her for scaring us.
I grabbed her arm. I actually grabbed Bethany’s arm. I didn’t grab both arms so the other one went up and hovered above my head, ready to knock me out.
“What does she mean?” I asked.
Bethany didn’t smack me. She exhaled, her shoulders relaxing. I quickly released my grasp not believing my luck.
“What do you mean?” Bethany asked the girl.
“And who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Stef and like you I am Bedrock. I graduated last year. Luckily, I was approached by a resistance group. Sorry, I can see you are puzzled and I’m trying to explain as fast as I can. We don’t have time. The resistance is fighting against The Sorting, the Anticipation forces, everything that predicts how we will live our lives and puts us in boxes that, inevitably, make their predictions come true.
What very few people know is that those systems are not 100% accurate. In simple terms, that means that their predictions are not completely true. Things could turn out differently.”
“So, I might not go to jail forever?” asked Bethany.
“I looked at that particular prediction. The system actually gave 98% probability for you receiving a life sentence. That means that there is a slight chance that you won’t. But of course, they will arrest you before the act, they will always arrest you before your alleged crimes and you will never be given a chance.”
“But they tested the system,” I said.
“They lied to us, Susan. There were cases where the system got it wrong. They buried these.”
“And how did you…”
“I’ll try to explain as quickly as I can. I have interfered with all cameras in this room and they are playing a clip of you sitting idle. The system will discover it, if I leave it for longer. We are recruiting people for the resistance. Our goal is to expose the truth to the world. Tell everyone that the system is based on statistics, on probabilities. And people’s lives are predetermined based on that. No one is allowed to make their own choices. The system decides how we’ll live!”
Bethany and I looked at each other. We smiled. I could have asked, Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Beth? And she would have answered, One hundred percent, Susie. But we didn’t have to.
“When are you going to… expose the truth?” Bethany asked Stef.
“We don’t know yet. We are growing in numbers…” said Stef but Bethany interrupted.
“Why not today? Why not now? There is a terminal in this school!”
We couldn’t wait. Bethany couldn’t wait for more than me. She was snorting like an angry bull. I swear, at that stage, she could headbutt a bull and win.
“Now?” asked Stef, hesitating.
“How long have you been in the resistance?” I asked.
“Maybe two years?” said Stef.
“In the end, you will get caught,” I said. “Can’t you see? It’s now or never. Let’s do it!”
Stef stood undecided.
“We will take care of the robots. Can you do it, if we cover your back?” asked Bethany.
“I think so,” said Stef.
The door opened with a bang and the two school security bots rushed in. The interference with the cameras had been discovered. We had talked for too long.
Reading my mind, Bethany said, “No more talking, time for action!”
In a split second, she grabbed a cleaning trolley and charged. The robots had been used to knowing their opponents’ movements because they had been predicted by the system. But this time the system didn’t have enough data to predict what we would do, because it hadn’t been watching long enough. Bethany rammed one of the robots. It fell on the floor, sliding amidst sparks, and smashing onto the wall.
Meanwhile, the other robot came towards me.
“Run to the terminal,” I shouted at Stef. “Before more bots arrive!”
“OK, yes, you’re right. You’re right” said Stef, gathering strength.
And then she ran.
The robot that was attacking me switched targets in an instant and turned to stop Stef. I didn’t have the luxury of commandeering a cleaning trolley but I still held my broom. Later I read about a French girl called Joan of Arc, and from then on, whenever I pictured my attack I looked like her.
With two hands, I forced the tip of my sword, I mean my broom, upwards under the robot’s jaw. It hadn’t expected that at all. Its head jolted violently backwards and I heard several cables breaking and metal joints dislodging. The head ended up hanging on the robot’s back, hanging, as it were, by a thread. The machine collapsed.
Bethany, in the meantime, had removed a metallic shelf from the wall and was finishing the first robot. We looked at each other. Oh, the sweet taste of victory. I wanted to hug her, but we had to run after Stef. Good job we didn’t waste time congratulating each other too. More bots had arrived and had gathered outside the terminal’s room. Apparently, Stef had made it and had locked herself inside. The robots held a siege ram, ready to break the door.
In perfect unison, Bethany and grabbed a bench from the corridor and made our famous charge. The one that has since been watched live by millions of people. It was all captured, from many different many, by the school’s numerous cameras. Holding each side of the bench Bethany and I ran like tigers. Like a herd of wild bison. Like a pack of rhinoceri. Anyway, you get the idea. If you are right now picturing the robots in a heap of bent metal and electrical sparks, you’re not far off. It remains the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life.
Stef was almost done coding a program that would post the truth in everyone’s social media feeds. But every famous last words contained an almost, didn’t they?
“Step away from that door.”
It was Haggard. Bethany and I looked at each other and held our grounds. But our grounds were suddenly shaky. The whole school shook by the unmistakable sound of a CAN helicopter. Or at least the Bedrock building, where we were. Unlike the Ore and Faithful buildings, which were made of brick and mortar, Bedrock, despite its name, was made of plywood. Or so we were told. Most of the time it looked like cardboard.
The CAN robots walked through the walls, ripping them apart with minimal effort. It was a bit difficult for Bethany and me to repeat our heroic feats because, for one, CAN robots were armed. They approached us from both sides of the corridor, one robot per side. Even Haggard looked scared as she stepped aside.
The reason those robots were impossible to beat was that they predicted your moves. After they had recognized you, they were scanning our faces right now, it was relatively easy for them to know what you would do. They had all the data and the anticipation systems were never wrong. Or were they?
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Beth?” I said. I mean, she was now my sister in arms but I still felt that Beth might be pushing it.
“I definitely am, Suse.” Cool answer.
We had realized that the robots thought that I was going to surrender easily. They were expecting resistance from Beth and they were going to focus on her. But it was all probabilities. And there was a small probability that I was going to kick their behinds. Bethany and I nodded at each other. I put my hands up, pretending I had given up. As we had predicted (see the irony?) the robots went straight to Bethany and they almost put her in handcuffs. But almost was as good as never.
The steel rod I had meanwhile picked from the heap of metal, went through a robot’s waist, at the point where its torso met its hips. It was a perfect strike, if I may say so. Its legs lost all control and it wobbled like a drunk person, eventually crashing spectacularly onto the floor. Its colleague diverted its attention from Bethany, pulled its gun and pointed it at me.
I saw its finger squeezing the trigger and closed my eyes. I heard the blast. For a moment I didn’t feel any pain. And another moment. What was the probability of the robot missing? Zero-point a few zeros and then a one. No, the robot hadn’t missed. I opened my eyes to see Bethany holding its arm up. But that lasted a split second. A punch sent Bethany to the floor.
I faced the barrel of the weapon again, and this time there was no one around to stop it.
“Susan Jones,” said the robot. “You’re dead.”
That was a weird phrase for a law enforcer. Someone was behind the wheel. Someone very angry. What had happened?
Stef had exposed the truth online, several minutes ago. Billions of people around the world were now reading about it. And Stef was also streaming live the picture from our school’s corridor. There was an urgent government call to the corporation that had created the anticipation systems.
Before the trigger was pulled, for the second time, my almost killer got shut down.
In the following years, there were dramatic changes in education, law enforcement, our society. Basically, free will was given back to the people. I won’t go into details, it was a long and not always easy transition.
But here we are. Instead of a hotel maid, I became a motivational speaker, working with shy and socially awkward kids, usually with stutters, like me. As for Bethany, well, you know. She became a scientist. Basically, a nerd, as I never fail to remind her.
About By Philip CK
Philp CK has been writing poetry and lyrics since he was twelve. By reading to his kids, he rediscovered his love for kids’ literature and has since written a book and several short stories. One of them has been published and another one is about to (not counting this particular one!) You can follow him on Twitter at @PhilipKavvadias.