The Choice Box, CB for short, sat on the table in front of me. A beer stood between us, half finished. I looked at the pint and wondered. "Who drank that beer?"
I looked around the hotel room. I was sitting on a chair in front of a table, a beer sitting on top of that. An old-fashioned analog clock hung on the wall, its hands hovered around 4, but the background was a digital image that said it was 7:22pm.
"Half the beer is gone. Who drank it?"
I wondered about this for a bit, zoned out for a few minutes, traveled along the pathway that my thoughts were carving through my mind.
It was like riding a train through the countryside for a while. You stare out the window and get lost in the terrain. Follow a river and imagine what it's like to navigate it. Watch birds chase the train for a while and admire the creatures that hang there, within arm's reach, as they soar. You watch the world, but can't reach out and touch it.
The terrain and the inhabitants were my own memories and thoughts and desires. I sat back and thought through the events that lead to this moment, rode the mental train that went from "Last Sync Me" non-stop to "Current Me". I rode the train and watched.
First thing, I put CB on the table, face down, and poured a glass of beer. There were three more in the small fridge. I had no food in the room, but wasn't hungry. I sat down and held the glass for a while, the cold penetrating my fingers, chilling them to the bone.
In a purely automatic fashion I raised the glass to my lips and drank. The first ounce hit my tongue and pleasure centers lit up like Christmas trees.
The memory train continued on its way and I reflected on the reason for this action. I was thirsty, thirsty past some internal threshold. It made perfect sense to raise this beverage to my mouth and take a drink. So my hand did exactly that and the man upstairs didn't even have to know about it. If I didn't choose to drink it, did I really drink that beer?
The great plague of the twenty-first century was not an anti-biotic resistant super-bacteria or mutated rabies. It was a new sort of blindness that impacted a small fraction of the population.
Our lives are built on the lies we tell ourselves. We get up in the morning because there is some clump of neurons, deep inside our brains, which tells us that today will be better than yesterday and the identical days, weeks, and months that came before. This claim is not based on facts or reason. These are optimistic or pessimistic conclusions that the brain jumps to with little evidence.
The Sancus Organ, as it became known after its discovery, urges us to buy lottery tickets and visit casinos, convinces us of impending riches even when we know the odds are not in our favor. It's also the same voice that consistently tells us we're not good enough, that we're impostors who are but a step away from being discovered and revealed for the frauds we believe we are, once again without much evidence to back that up.
The Sancus Organ lied to our conscious minds every minute of every day. This was the organ that alternates in pushing us beyond what we think is possible, and holding us back from doing what we know we can do.
The 2029 epidemic rampaged through almost one percent of the population and tore millions of Sancus Organs to shreds. We, the victims, lost the ability to hope, to convince ourselves of something that we knew to be false, be it good or bad.
Suddenly life seemed a lot starker. There were no grand dreams, illusions really, based on nothing but hope and wishes. Plenty of us who were older really didn't take that well. But with the dreams also went the paralyzing self-doubt. The various lies we told ourselves were no long there. Life with the veneer gone was a bit more obvious.
We looked out into the world and based on our circumstances and needs, we saw the obvious way forward.
If your family is about to double in size with the coming of twins, you're obviously going to need that raise at work. Maybe in a different life you'd be buying lottery tickets or quietly hoping for a miraculous holiday bonus - miraculous because the bonuses have been "deferred" for the past four years - but now you're simply not aware of these options. The only choice that you see is picking up the extra work your boss is offering. It's such a logical choice, in fact, that it's not much of a choice, really.
So the world did not come crashing down overnight. The delivery-truck driver still showed up for work and made his stops, the checkout clerks scanned their badges when coming into the store, the fishermen at small coastal villages set sail as they and their fathers before them had always done.
There were plenty of us who saw the shitty positions for the soul-sucking traps they were, and promptly quit. It was surprising to the rest of the world, but people adapted.
We woke up each morning and only saw the world that would be - how we thought it would be - as a straight-forward set of events. We lost the ability to hope for things, to believe against reason that things would improve. We saw our future as inevitable, each choice a painful or pleasant fork that must be taken.
Whenever you came to an intersection in your life, a point where you had to decide to go left or right, you made the choice without hesitation, no second thoughts, no lingering regrets. You took the "correct" fork, whatever that personally meant to you. You did not pause for self-reflection, simply marched on.
You became a passenger in a train of your own life.
It shook the world in strange and varied ways. Businesses and even a few industries collapsed overnight. The world was confused, but moved on.
Terrorists attacked a mall in the Philippines. US veteran suicide rates dipped, but did not go to zero. Civil war continued in Brazil. Death was still the best answer to some questions, at least for some of us.
Life was a straight line. Then an app called Choice came along and re-introduced the decision tree into our lives.
When a person launched Choice on their device, they would see a swirling pool of images. These were often stills from the social web, or stylistic drawings, sometimes words on a slew of backgrounds. Watching the pool was very important. The app watched your eyes, tracked what was important to you, even on a subconscious level, when your eyes shifted somewhere so quickly your conscious self didn't even know it. Thus, the app responded to your thoughts, your mood, and would toss up different images depending on your own feelings.
Choice showed different imagery to determine responses, concentrated on the concepts that you reacted to most strongly. Choice used its screen and array of sensors to probe your mind and determine what was important to you. Your hopes and desires, your dreams that the Sancus Organ could no longer promote on its own.
Choice brought these ideas up to you, marched them deep into you brain, without you realizing what was happening. Choice gave you back desire and wishful thinking and options.
"Free will. There's an app for that."
The Choice Box was a dedicated Choice device. It had bright lights along its borders, sensors that detected where I was, sensors that listened to and watched the world around it, including me. It had a screen where it communicated with me. Where I had choice.
We can once again think a desire and force ourselves to do it, just by looking at some flashing images on a device.
The cameras are much better on the Choice Box, so it works faster. Fifty percent faster free will at twice the cost, that was their sales pitch.
So I sat there and watched the unblinking lights on the sides of the device and automatically drank my beer.
The CB had told me what to do, and I concentrated on that.
The clock on the wall said 7:41pm. It was 7:02 when the CB last spoke to me. I pulled another beer out of the fridge, emptied it into my glass and lined up the bottle on the edge of the small fridge.
Pulled up a station on my mobile and the wall speakers came alive with soft piano notes, a slow progression that picked up steam. I listened and waited, watched the silent and unblinking CB, and thought. Picked up the half-full glass of beer and considered that it was my destiny to do so. There was no choice, I had no input on this so-called decision.
Looked up at the clock and saw that I still had eighteen minutes to go. Eighteen minutes of a stark and hopeless world. Eighteen minutes until I had to pick up the CB.
Soon, CB will show me images faster than my conscious brain can pick up. It will identify what I wanted by using its cameras to track my eyes, see which images and concepts I followed, what features I focused on.
The loss of hope resulted in a loss of free will. Here was the closest we came these days. I wondered.
I picked up the glass and threw it on the ground. It shattered and beer splattered on the carpet, began to sink deep into it.
I watched the suds disappear for a while. Freedom?
The clock turned to 8:02 and I picked up the CB, faced it toward me and turned it on.
A blue glow dominated its screen. Time slowed down.
I was happy, had found a slew of choices once again. I moved over to the single piece of luggage I had brought with me, a tall black ruggedized suitcase, opened it and pulled out an industrial vacuum. I plugged it in and switched it on, picked up the glass pieces and extracted most of the beer from the carpet. Emptied the vacuum's container into the garbage can under the table, then put the vacuum away.
The room looked unlived-in, undamaged, my quick digression from the norm already tidied up, forgotten. I put away the suitcase and headed out.
The hotel was on a block with several similar high-rises, hotels or apartments or even student housing. There were courtyards and parks between the buildings. Tall concentrations of people among green fields and soft mounds. A common sight these days.
I hailed a cab and gave the driver the name of the bar. He looked at me strangely, one eye-brow tilted upwards, then saw the CB in my hand. The devices were popularized enough through shows and movies, he knew what it was and who I was. He shrugged and said nothing, then started driving. It was a quiet ride.
The bar was clearly in the wrong part of town. We passed under two bridges, in almost complete darkness, then drove along a set of railroad tracks before finally making it to some place called Joe's. Only two of the neon letters worked, and the ones that did mostly flickered.
The lot in front of the bar was dirty with litter and garbage, the parking lines faded almost to nothing. There were three vehicles: two small cars of indeterminate color from three decades back, and a large black shiny monstrosity. The cabbie looked at the lot, looked at me. Did that once more before his conscience piped up.
"Who was it told you 'bout this place?"
"Hell of a friend. They're not too keen on…" The cabbie's eyes moved toward the CB that I held in one hand.
"Ah. I'll keep a low profile." I extended the wad of cash toward him.
The cabbie glanced back at the empty parking lot. No one had come or gone in the past minute. He sighed and took the money.
"Just hope you got your will in order, man."
The cabbie took off before I even shut the door. I looked around but didn't see anyone on the streets, no one around at all.
The bar was equally deserted. Today there were four patrons, myself included.
I got a seat at the bar, at the edge that was closest to the wall, a mostly-dark spot in the bar were few were likely to pay attention. Ordered a beer from a short, bored-looking bartender. She looked to be in her sixties.
There was a game on over the bar, and for a while that occupied my attention. Some fries showed up and I ate them in silence. Wondered for a hundredth time if this was something I wanted, or what some piece of machinery thought? The beer tasted good. But whose response was it?
So it was an evening like any other, is what I'm saying. Mostly.
The other three patrons in the bar were seated at a table toward the middle of the bar. They were in front of me, and to the right.
Two faced me, one faced away. Of the duo, on the left was a woman in her thirties, tattoos, dark makeup, dark hair. On her right sat a tall older man, dark brown jacket on, week-old stubble that was turning into a competition beard. A man sat opposite Brown Jacket, and of him I saw the least, but he was hunched over to the left, his arm locked at a strange angle to his body.
I took the CB out and held it in my lap. Thumbed the on switch and it quickly identified me. The blue pool faded in and time slowed down.
In my peripheral vision I kept the others in view, aware of each and every motion, while paying attention to the CB. Time slowed and the machine read my mind, brought up concepts and ideas. I watched these sail into the possibilities I was able to entertain. Choices that were pushed by minute flickers of emotion that CB triggered in me. The screen was full of words and abstract shapes and bits and pieces of imagery. What is that, is that a liver spot? Is that a birthmark? Is that a third nipple? Who knows?!
In slow motion, the woman got up and crossed to the seat at the bar a few down from me. While she watched me for a handful of seconds, I studied her, in quite a bit of detail. Took in the eight visible tattoos, followed the outlines and traced every corner I could see, saw partials of three more that were mostly covered by her outfit. I sat on her left, and noticed that this arm was artificial. It was the latest Clip Hurt, she must have just snagged it up.
I counted her teeth and cavities as she spoke to me, a slow, exhausting movement of her lips, the sound somewhere in the back of my conscious mind.
"Hey, freak, what's your master telling you?"
I ignored her and continued following the blue pattern on the screen.
In what seemed like autopilot on her part, I watched the woman pick up a nut from one of the bowls on the counter and toss it straight at me. The nut flew right at my face and hit my forehead.
Time snapped back and I looked up from a fading blue pool. I blinked into the bar's dim interior and waited while my eyes adjusted themselves.
The woman was staring at me, with at least a hint of anger.
"Freak, what the fuck are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry?" I looked from the woman to her two companions. That pissed her off even more.
"You're not welcome here, now get out!" She advanced around the bar, toward me.
"You object to me being here?"
"No shit, freak. You're a psycho who's gonna flip out one day and kill a dozen real people. Ain't gonna be here."
The woman moved toward me and cracked the knuckles on her mechanical hand. Someone really wanted that feature, it seems. The bartender stood silent behind the bar. The two sitting men just shifted in their chairs, and watched. The dark-haired woman stopped within arm reach.
"This thing," I said, pointing at the CB, "doesn't tell me what to do. I make the calls. I choose. It just helps me see the choices I can't see nowadays.
She reached over with her robotic hand and quick as a snake grabbed the CB. She glanced at it, then the mechanical fingers tightened around the machine, the glass and metal body cracked and popped, something began to smoke. She dropped the remains on my unfinished plate of fries.
"Should've left when you could've left."
"That wasn't very nice," I said.
She swung at me with the metallic hand, long sharp fingernails tearing through the air, as I moved back to match her motion. Almost. She ripped fabric but grabbed air.
I backed away from the bar, put a table between the two of us. Her two companions and the bartender still had not moved, they all silently watched.
"You're pissing me off, zombie." The dark-haired woman hissed at me.
Quick as a snake she flipped the table toward me and slammed at it as it came up, all her energy centered on her cybernetic arm. The aim was to send the one hundred pound piece of furniture at my head with as much force as possible.
Saw it coming.
I moved out of the way, ducked down, and hit her square in the stomach, as the table flew over my head and toward the back wall.
She went down. Hard. Vomited and cried out in pain.
"Please stay down. I'd rather not kill you." I looked toward her companions. "Or your entourage."
"Fuck you!" She croaked this out through clenched, vomit-covered teeth.
The tall bearded man raised his voice, "Mona, want me to fuck this guy up?"
"Nah, you just make yourself comfortable, have another beer, be the model bodyguard that I pay you to be." She spoke through gritted teeth as she raised herself up and stood. "Fucker. After I beat this bitch, you're next!"
I looked around the bar. No one else had moved.
The woman reached behind her back with her right, non-mechanical hand, and pulled out a gun. I started to move toward her, but was too slow.
The gun was a Ruger SR, 9c if someone pressed me on it, but I wasn't too certain under these conditions.
She squeezed off a round, but was too impatient, fired before her hand could bring the gun toward me, and I was already moving. She was in a hurry, acting on over-eager impulse. The bullet went wide and I finally reached her, slammed her down into the ground and wrestled her for the gun.
She still held it, but I angled her arm away from me, toward the ground. She pulled the trigger once and we both jumped. I used the surprise to push the gun into her left arm, simultaneously turned away and squeezed the trigger.
A fountain of sparks, metal and plastic erupted from Mona's arm. I rolled away and stood up, pointed the gun vaguely in her direction.
She lay on the ground and screamed. The shattered hardware must have been playing havoc on her nerves.
"Mona, listen up," I looked down at her and waited, until she glanced in my general direction for a solid second, before continuing. "You're done here. If this was the corporate world, I'd be the guy they bring in to do the layoffs, I'd say that you've been let go and should go pack up your shit. But we're here, instead." I squeezed the trigger and Mona's hand exploded, fingers and little bits of electronics peppered the floor around us. "Anton appreciates your service. So he didn't ask me to kill you. You lost all your LA privileges. You leave town tonight…" I fired again, slightly higher, and more of the mechanized appendage was gone. Now it was just a stump that ended at the elbow.
She probably didn't even feel the last two shots. The arm was dead with that first shot. I was blasting apart a broken printer at this point.
She slumped and went limp. I could practically see the realization, the sudden understanding of the situation pierce her awareness. The mention of Anton finally drove home the point that she'd been avoiding thinking about.
She started to cry, very softly.
"Hey, man," Felix spoke up, "did I hear that you take trophies?"
I smiled at the psycho in the room.
"Yeah, you're right. Anton usually asks me to bring back a souvenir. Johnny Regi's head. Peanut's nuts." I looked down at Mona. Her eyes radiated hatred. The whole bar was ready to burst into flames. "He didn't say anything to me, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind owning this."
I used the barrel of the gun to trace the shiny chrome, from Mona's shoulder down to the stump where the elbow was, then swung the gun back up to the shoulder. Mona was silent and stared up at me.
"I've got a choice to make, see?" I paused and waited. Eventually she nodded, silently. "Do I perform a bit of unnecessary surgery here," I placed the gun at the joint where flesh met machine, "or do I let you live. Fuck, if only I had that CB, the choice wouldn't look as bleak as it does now. Bleak for you."
I watched Mona. Tears swelled around her eyes and traced pathways down her mascara-covered face, but she remained silent.
"The way I figure it, I bring Anton that terribly-mangled arm for his trophy, I'll be a richer man." I paused and looked up at Felix, who nodded along. "You'll be dead, I'll be richer, and Felix here might be running the block."
I paused and waited for either one of them say anything, but they stayed quiet.
"The way I figure it, if you're alive, there's a chance you'll come back for some vengeance. Maybe in a year or two, or a decade, once you've learned how to use that hand of yours, you'll come back and rip my heart out." I looked over to the toasted CB on top of the bar. "That certainty, it's rising in me, by the second. The longer we wait, the more likely I am to pull this trigger. Already I'm finding it hard to move the gun away."
The gun wavered slightly, the barrel tilted upward, away from Mona for a moment, before coming back to her shoulder.
"Already I feel like I'm running out of options here. Tick, tock. Tick, tock." I counted off the beats as the gun swung back and forth in a tighter set of arcs. Mona's eyes were focused me.
"Fuck you, zombie."
"Funny. You know why Anton hired me? A zombie, as you put it?" I smiled and raised my eyebrows. "He knew that you'd be you, and I'd be me, and together we'd dance a lovely tango. He knew that there would be only one real outcome here."
I stood over Mona and held my gun at the ready. She stared into my eyes, her face full of hatred, black tears that looked almost drawn on.
"But Anton didn't pay me to kill you. And a little close-minded shit like you isn't a threat to me. So get the fuck out of here." I lowered the gun and walked back to the bar. Finished my beer. I heard Mona get up and hobble to the door. "See you in ten years!"