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The Twenty-Year Reset

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In a near future America where people only communicate through technology, humans live agoraphobically in a kind of technological womb. What happens when one of them steps outside?

Scifi / Adventure
5.0 1 review
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Chapter 1

All Churchill could think about was the horrible buzzing coming from the wall screen. It didn't matter that he had changed the sound from the standard high-pitched beep to a more melodious and subtle tone. It was the interruption that bothered him most.

Churchill's onscreen character sat pressed against a rock trying to avoid getting blasted by the other players in his game of Invasion. The second he tilted his head to find out who was trying to contact him, someone in the game discovered his hiding spot and smashed him with a giant axe. Churchill saw the blow coming, but even with his practiced gaming skills, he was too late to salvage the situation.

A flash of bright light followed by the pronouncement of "game over" popped on the screen, and Churchill slammed down his cup of water in anger. The cup shattered, and when he saw the shards on the floor, he cursed loudly. It wasn't every day you could get a new one through the pneumatube. Such things were rationed, and Churchill would be lucky if he saw another one pass through the tube before next year.

"Answer," he growled at the screen. Glass covered one entire wall. Like nearly everyone else, Churchill spent most of his time in front of it. All communication, the Neonet, entertainment options, and other means of interacting with the outside world ran through the massive device. No wires or metal were visible, only a solid piece of glass that displayed whatever was required.

The image of his friend October spread across the middle of the screen, and he didn't look exactly happy. The picture showed a good-looking, dark-skinned fellow with short hair and a chiseled chin, but image enhancers were so prevalent no one knew what anyone else looked like anymore.

Churchill was no exception. His own digital image shaved at least twenty pounds off his body, and he had set his eye color to blue although his real eyes were hazel. Most people accepted that the images of others on the screen were never accurate. In modern society people lived in a state of dual consciousness when dealing with others. Since human-to-human interactions were rarely done in person anymore, online representations of people were all the reality that existed. People knew they saw fabricated or augmented versions, but what others were available to them? One's actual appearance no longer mattered. What one thought one should look like was key.

Churchill sighed. He knew what was coming from his friend. The irony of the impending chastisement was that Churchill originally met October in one of his Neonet games at three in the morning. At that hour most reasonable people weren't awake, which meant October was just as much a technoaddict as Churchill. October was hardly all that different from Churchill in many ways. When they discovered they both worked for Pietro Technologies, they became immediate friends. A normal day would see at least twenty to thirty email messages pass between them, with the topics ranging from the obscure to the risqué. October was probably the closest thing Churchill had to a real friend.

"Damn it, Churchill, what are you doing? It's ten o'clock in the morning! On a workday!" October said, looking worried. "Scratch that. I know what you're doing. I also see you 'working' right now. Man, they’re really cracking down on people using artificial intelligence to work for them. You're not just going to get fired. They’re going to take away your tube privileges."

"How did you know I'm using an AI?" Churchill wondered aloud. He didn't deny the accusation. Why should he? "And why the hell do you sound like you're my mom or something? I've been using that AI for years now. I've got the thing tuned to perfection. Not a hitch so far. It even makes mistakes sometimes on purpose." He actually did wonder how October knew his artificial intelligence program worked for him. He started sweating a little. If October can find out. . .

"I know because you're playing and working simultaneously. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you can't do both at the same time. Anyway, your supervisors are doing the same thing. Or at least they were. Until they all got busted and fired."

"Ah crap," muttered Churchill. "When did that happen?"

October scratched his head. "Last week. I'm surprised you didn't hear. I figured you'd be right there, top of the distribution list for the rumor mill. It's the Feds. They came through and did a sweep on all the people in a managerial position or higher. I heard even the CEO was caught. Imagine that guy, rich as a Pharaoh, but no longer able to get anything from the tubes."

"Consider me lucky that I have zero ambition for career advancement," Churchill said with a laugh. "That really sucks though. I still can't believe the Anti-Computer-Generated Worker Bill passed. What's it been? Two years now? I'll vote for any politician who campaigns on repealing that bloody thing."

October waved his hand around the screen and tapped the air a few times. "Never going to happen, buddy," he said. "Too many AI mistakes made. Mostly by arrogant pricks like you who think they, what, 'tuned their AI to perfection'? Besides, if AIs do everything, what's the point of us humans?"

"Invasion," Churchill replied. "I have no greater plan than leveling up my character. The AIs can have the rest of the world so long as they keep those servers up."

"You're such an idiot, Church," October said, growing visibly frustrated. "Listen, I need to focus. You should too. It won't be that long before the Feds scan the next level of employees. I'm just looking out for ya buddy. Consider yourself warned." With that his image clicked off.

The wall screen still displayed images from Invasion. Explosions echoed throughout the room and lit up the walls with dark reds and bright yellows. Churchill sighed. He hated work. He couldn't find a single compelling reason to log into his employer's site and start fixing mechanical failures in the dysfunctional robots that sat hundreds of miles away in an automated warehouse.

Like most Americans, however, Churchill was a practiced and addicted consumer. Rail as he might against the government crackdown on people using AIs to pretend to be themselves at work, the punishments were far too onerous to think about enduring. Of course there was the pay. No job meant no money. The last time Churchill had waved open his bank's site and scanned his palm, the account balance hadn’t been particularly encouraging. And that was with gainful employment. Getting the pneumatubes taken away was a far worse punishment. Everything came through those tubes: food, furniture, clothing . . . everything. The government owned all the tubes and controlled the distribution centers. If it took away their use, the effect was more or less a backdoor death sentence.

Churchill disabled his artificial intelligence program with a midair turn of his wrist. He timed his movements quickly. A second after he confirmed the AI was disabled, he swiped his hand horizontally and said, "Login, work." If no one actively monitored his system, his connection would look like a blip on the Neonet, as if a sunspot or radiation surge somewhere had broken his connection for only a split second.

A green light passed over his face, which meant his employer scanned him to make sure he was physically sitting at his wall screen, working. Whenever a connection severed, protocol and federal employment law mandated the determination that the employee was still there. Satisfied that he was, the dreary robot repair warehouse filled the wall screen. Pinching and swiping his way to his station, station five, Churchill motioned toward a broken robot and started the diagnostics.

Churchill let his mind wander over what living without the tubes would be like. He could try to live like a Morlok, one of those disgusting half-breed humans who endured the Earth's broken environment. The thought was nearly incomprehensible. Who even knows what Morloks look like anymore? Churchill wondered. They were masked and obscured whenever they popped up on a video feed. He could only imagine what a hundred years and three to five generations of breeding in a toxic environment had done to their evolution.

Churchill had heard they lived only forty years. Someone else told him thirty. Whatever the truth was, they managed somehow to live on plants that were resistant to the Earth's extreme heat and scarce water. Churchill remembered the juicy hamburger he had grilled the night before and couldn't imagine a life gnawing on stringy plants like a cow chewing cud. If it weren’t for the outside jobs that no robot could perform, there would be no use for the Morloks.

He could perform one of those jobs, he supposed. He'd heard they paid mostly in drinkable water, though, and he didn't have the temperament for that kind of barbaric lifestyle. Living meant comfort. Without comfort, living wasn't living. Simple as that. Churchill enjoyed his cushy chair, soft bed, his friends on the Neonet, and the supply of goods coursing through the pneumatubes.

That's why he would work today. And tomorrow. And every day until he retired at eighty-five. The government controlled the means to his lifestyle. Either he abided by the rules or he joined the Morloks or he died, but that was a thin distinction.

The diagnostic came back to the broken robot. "Busted central processor," the analysis read. "Repair?" it asked. Churchill put his arms in front of him and made a swimming motion; the view jumped to another work station. His index finger pointed toward the second drawer from the bottom of a red metal compartment, and the shelf popped open.

"Model number," he said.

"A7-325" the computer responded. Churchill put his thumb and middle finger together and then rapidly moved them apart. The screen magnified the focus on the drawer of central processing chips, but his eyes still couldn't make out the serial numbers that were etched on their faces, so he repeated the movement with his fingers until he could clearly read the print.

"Gotcha," he said as he caught a glimpse of the chip he needed. "Open new view. Small bot."

As he drew a square in the air, a section of the wall screen changed to a first-person view of the warehouse. He stuck his hands out in front of him, and two robotic hands did the same on the smaller screen. He motioned to grab the required chip, and the robot arm mirrored his own movement perfectly.

"Drive to station five," he ordered. The small screen showed the robot's trek to the work station from a first-person perspective. At this moment Churchill was the robot. On the larger screen he looked from a bird's eye, ceiling view and watched the modest pace of the robot as it crossed the warehouse, chip in hand. Hundreds of robots did the same. Some bumped into one another, but most drove past without acknowledgment. Controlling each of them was a human like Churchill. He wondered which one October operated. If he knew he would gladly speed up and ram into it for ending his sweet game of Invasion. October was right, but that fact didn't abate Churchill's resentment.

The small bot finally arrived at station five. Manipulating the repair bot, Churchill took the busted chip out of the worker machine, dumped it into the recycling bin, and put the new one in its place. The worker bot looked like a farm variety. One hand formed some kind of spade, and the other, a nozzle that attached to a storage tank holding water. All agriculture happened indoors under artificial weather conditions these days, but the robots still managed to break down consistently and often.

"Diagnose," he ordered. The diagnostics process took a solid ten minutes, which was fine with Churchill. He glanced down at the wall beneath his screen. The massive, thin sheet of glass spanned most of the wall, but a space of around seven inches ran between the floor and the screen. In that area he had taped a picture of an old-time cartoon figure from the twentieth century, George Jetson. This colorful guy sat reclined in a chair in front of a tiny wall screen. On his desk was a single red button, and his index finger hovered over it. His eyes were closed, and a lazy smile spread across his face. Churchill had watched some archival video of the show once or twice on the Neonet, and he knew all George did at work was push that one button. That was it. And that was exactly how Churchill felt about his own work.

When the diagnosis came back acceptable, Churchill booted up the farm bot and sent it on its way. Three minutes later another machine slid onto the station-five workbench, and Churchill repeated the process, with the same result. The cycle occurred for the remainder of the day as robots came to the bench broken and left it ready to resume their mindless upholding of human commerce.

Churchill sighed. Artificial intelligences were banned, but the law says nothing about trained monkeys, he thought.

His employment contract mandated a quota of robots be fixed daily, and he understood precisely the required amount of time needed per robot. He knew exactly how many emails he could peruse in between diagnostics. If he held his left hand in precisely the correct position, he could make the warehouse bot move to the correct location while his other hand did something else. In the middle of repairing a medical robot, which usually took an inordinate amount of focus due its delicate instruments, Churchill drew another square on the right hand side of the wall screen and said, "Check email." His inbox popped up, and while it loaded his messages, he drew a rectangle above it and said, "Friendbook." Back on the warehouse screen the robot bumped into a table, and Churchill adjusted his left hand slightly to correct its course.

Once Friendbook opened, a smaller box within appeared and stated, "Riley02 would like to chat."

"Accept," Churchill said, before an attractive brunette with crisp, blue eyes smiled back at him.

"O-M-G. Dude, I totally fragged your ass this morning!" she said. Churchill looked over from an email he'd started reading and raised his middle finger at her picture, a move that accidentally caused a calculator program to open in the middle of the wall screen.

"Yeah, well, you got lucky. My coworker buzz-killed my experience by letting me know they're cracking down on AI use at work," he replied. He put his left palm up and caused the warehouse bot to stop. He pinched and zoomed over the medical bot at the workbench with his left hand and then made yet another box on the wall screen with his right. "Shop now," he ordered, and images of food and electronics for purchase appeared on the new screen. He returned to the email he scanned earlier and caught the tail end of what Riley02 said.

". . . and then I told my boss to go screw himself. I work my hours and then it's my time. You know what I mean?" she said.

"Yup," Churchill responded. The medical bot needed a chip located way on the other side of the warehouse. "Hey, are we still on for our date this Friday?"

She grinned and said, "Heck yeah! I reserved a spot for us on Datenight. I figured we could run the French experience, but if that's not cool with you, we can switch to a bowling room or something . . . more intimate." She blushed, or at least the picture of her did.

Churchill always wondered if those coy little details were part of the program or reflected actual reality. He added that question to his mental list of things to research. Still, he didn't know why she was so shy. This wouldn't be their first date, and he remembered the sticky mess from their last one, which had become heavy and passionate quickly.

On the far left portion of the screen the compartment on the backside of the medical robot's head sat ready for chip insertion. "Listen, babe," he said, "I need to focus on this damn med bot. May I call you later? Or see you on Invasion maybe?"

"Count on it," she answered. "Maybe this time you'll bring your A-game, huh?" With a snicker she closed her window, and Churchill carefully rotated the bot's arm so he could slide the chip into the correct slot.

Med bots were trickier than most due to the possibility of lawsuits if a botched medical procedure could later be traced back to a careless repair. Doctors no longer performed any work themselves, but instead researched new methods for treating human ailments and transferred the successful and government-approved ones into the comprehensive medical database. The individual databases housed in each bot were in turn updated with the new information. This ensured that any medical bot zipping through the pneumatubes would come equipped with the most up-to-date medical knowledge available. When they finished a treatment, the bots climbed into the outbound tube and navigated their pathways to their next client. If Churchill blew the repair on this one, many people could receive improper medical care. That, like using an AI to work, would result in being cut off from the tubes, unless he paid enough money to the victims to cover their damages.

Churchill didn't have that kind of money, but he carelessly perused an email while inserting the chip nonetheless. October wouldn't approve of this lack of focus, but then again he always seemed to multitask.

Who's to say anybody ever gives their attention wholly to any one thing at a time anymore? Churchill thought.

The email was from 7ucky who wanted to know if the two of them could squeeze in a date this week sometime. Friday night was taken with Riley02, but Saturday looked promising so Churchill rubbed two fingers on his palm and a rectangular part of the screen turned into a keyboard.

"Reply," he said and typed an email telling 7ucky to set aside Saturday night. Churchill maxed out on two dates a week. Any more and he devoted too much time to maintaining those relationships and not enough to doing his own thing. He thought about how many dates 7ucky likely went on each week and shuddered. People dating multiple others was the norm, but 7ucky really got around. Churchill hated the word slut, but 7ucky worked hard to earn the moniker.

The rest of Churchill's work day went on in this fashion. Robot after robot came to his station. He fixed them and they left, all while Churchill's right hand opened screens of things to keep him entertained. The last robot scooted off the bench, and a final green scan passed over his face before the view of the warehouse flickered and left the wall screen mostly blank.

"Close all," Churchill said, and the other open screens disappeared. He pushed back hard, and his chair on wheels skidded across the tile floor and twirled a little. Putting his feet on the floor, he stopped himself and braced for a fuzzy head. Twelve hours had passed since he had last stood. He tried to bend and stretch his legs during his marathon computing sessions, but nothing much could be done about the rush of blood to the head after they were over.

Screw it, he thought, hopping up as fast as he could. Whoosh went the blood and his eyes filled with stars. He blinked slowly and put his arm out to brace himself against the wall but miscalculated and ended up tumbling onto the floor.

"Shit," he blurted before laughing at himself for his own ineptitude.

Standing up again he realized two things. The first was that he needed to use the toilet. Some hard-core professionals these days used chamber pots or other more disgusting methods to bring the toilet to the computer, but Churchill preferred to abuse his bladder.

The other thing he realized while on the floor was that he smelled. Bad. He stripped off his clothes and tossed them into the laundry hamper before turning on the shower. While he waited for the water to warm, Churchill read the display in the mirror. The bright blue LED wording in the upper corner indicated his weight, pulse, and an affirmation that his body lacked any physical manifestations of cancer. That last bit of information was the most controversial and the most often incorrect, despite the recent advancements in at-home, full-body scanning. In such a toxic environment, cancer was always at the front of everyone's mind. Not that anyone who wasn't a Morlok ever went outside anymore.

Why would they? Churchill thought. As the slogan said, "If the tubes can't deliver it, you don't need it".

Churchill did take the weight warning seriously, however. The display read that he was around twenty-five pounds overweight, and that number had gradually increased over the last few years. Churchill frowned at himself. He remembered the treadmill collecting dust in the corner of his bedroom and vowed (again) to institute a routine of running to get back in shape. His hand touched the water in the shower. Feeling that it was sufficiently warm, he stepped in and let the water pour over his body.

God this feels good, he thought. Showers were one of his guilty pleasures in life, even if the frequency with which he took them didn't convey that fact. He stood under the nozzle and let the warmth envelop him. After about five minutes of standing comatose under the water, he bent down to pick up the loofah and soap. A minute later he stepped out of the enclosure and wrapped a towel around his waist. He ran his hand through his facial hair, a product of two weeks refusal to shave, and considered grooming. Churchill glanced at the shaving kit and changed his mind. His facial hair could wait until tomorrow.

Thunk. Churchill heard the sound of something hitting the stop-bar in the pneumatube and felt a surge of excitement. Throwing on a pair of sweatpants and a stained T-shirt, he walked over and opened the tube compartment. A bright red package about a foot long sat in the receiving bin. "Julia's Sandwich Shop" proclaimed the wrapper. Churchill's mouth watered and his stomach rumbled. Normally he made sure to scrounge for food throughout the day, but today he had attempted no such effort. He was starving.

"Music, Beatles, random", he said, and John Lennon's voice started crooning "I'm so tired." Churchill laughed as he dragged his chair back to the same spot where it had been before and plopped down in it. "Now that is appropriate," he said and took his first bite of the delicious food.

"Screen on," he ordered, food flying out of his mouth when he spoke. Once the wall screen flickered alive he drew five boxes in rapid succession and said, "Friendbook, Email, PoliticsNow, NewsFinancial, Entunews." Each screen popped up one of the named sites, and while scanning each simultaneously, he wolfed down his dinner.

He looked at the six hundred twenty-three notifications on Friendbook and shuddered. Half of those were likely to be from his friends about their wins in Invasion, and those always made Churchill a little envious. He had around two thousand "friends" on the website, but not a one of them ever said anything substantive. Even so, they constituted the majority of his social interactions, and as such, proved to be a necessary evil. Responding here and there, he put in the work to maintain those relationships. Most of the time he didn't bother to read what his friends said before curling his hand into a thumbs-up position, which marked an individual's comment with Churchill's official stamp of approval. People liked getting affirmation. Churchill certainly did.

"Status update. Brutal day at work. Looking forward to a night of Invasion," he told Friendbook. Seconds after the update flashed on his profile, hundreds of his friends gave their own thumbs up. Churchill smiled. One of his Friendbook contacts appeared in a new window, and the two started talking. Another contact tried the same, but Churchill had the settings configured so that only one voice conversation could happen at a time. Nothing could be more embarrassing than speaking to two people at the same time and saying something meant for one person to the other. The second friend's request to chat instead opened in a smaller rectangular window, and a separate screen appeared underneath for the keyboard. Churchill talked and typed, and both friends thought they had his full attention.

His real attention was focused on the PoliticsNow Neonet site. "President Miller Vetoes Repeal Attempt of 'Terminator Bill'" read the headline.

What a joke of a president she is, thought Churchill. The last president, President Stephenson, had pushed hard for repeal of the legislation that banned the installation of artificial intelligences in any robot, but Congress had blocked his efforts. Now Congress had voted to repeal and the new president had blocked the bill. No way could Congress muster the two-thirds vote needed to overrule the veto, although business groups lobbied unceasingly. They claimed the law stifled innovation and cut off an effective means of increasing profits. Robots infused with adaptive artificial intelligence could perform the more specialized work only highly trained humans could currently do. The robots could work more efficiently and for longer periods, the business coalition argued. Opposition groups argued that the law was necessary to protect human jobs and ensure the safety of the public. The business groups countered that machines in various forms had been replacing human workers since the 1800s. That assertion was true, but anyone who followed the debate understood that an underlying distrust of robots was the real driving force behind the opposition. Any other argument was just a cover for fear.

It didn't help that the public was confused about the nuances of artificial intelligence. In actuality the distinctions were massive. There were two types: adaptive, or lifelike AI; and simple AI, the kind of basic intelligence only good for simple tasks. True artificial intelligence was born years before the bill passed. This AI differentiated itself from standard computer intelligence in that it was adaptive. It learned. In adapting, it approached human capabilities and could simulate human emotions better than most people could. Standard AI could put together a pneumatube assembly just fine, but for anything creative or "humanlike," it fizzled. The new adaptive AI could paint a ceiling that shamed Michelangelo or innovate in ways not seen since Thomas Edison.

In the beginning a small group of scientists collaborated over the Neonet and gave birth to Eve, a fully aware, adaptive artificial intelligence that they isolated in a nonnetworked machine. Months later the scientists formed a small company and marketed the potentials for AI. Automating housekeeping, giving the increasingly isolated population someone to talk to, and other uses appeared on their Neonet site. What the scientists didn't expect when they unveiled this wondrous new technology was the social backlash. Almost immediately Neonet programs and movies appeared, featuring the violent extermination of mankind at the hands of malcontented robots. Most people admitted liking the potential of AI. But they also feared robots marching through the world destroying what was left of the outside and eradicating every individual in the population one by one.

This fear had won out, and Congress responded by passing what the media labeled the "Terminator Bill," titled after a centuries-old movie. President Meyer signed the bill into law, and adaptive AI became illegal. No adaptive AI could be installed in any robot, from toaster to vibrator to farm worker. It was fine for a robot to have enough smarts to do a task, even a complicated one. But if the robot contained the higher brain activity native to humans, it was illegal. That was the rule. The only exception let registered users install adaptive AI in specific software applications, following strict parameters and employing multiple built-in safeguards.

Churchill said "play," and a video of the president speaking started on a new screen. She wore a red, button-up jacket and spoke while seated at her desk in the Oval Office. President Miller had on glasses. Churchill theorized that she wore them only when she wanted to appear more intelligent. When she wanted to charm an audience with her femininity, she wore contact lenses.

"Human beings are too valuable and important to become obsolete at the hands of technology," she said. "America has a long and storied tradition of technological innovation. That will continue. Repeal is not, I repeat not, in our best interest. It should be noted that the European Union, the Asian Union, and the Latin American Union have all taken the same stance." She paused. "My fellow Americans, technology serves us. We do not serve technology. Robots are and will remain a vital part of our modern lives. Our innovative spirit will continue to bloom. What we cannot afford, in this or any other economy, is for robots to displace thousands, if not millions, of American workers. Let robots make our lives easier. Do not let their convenience make them pointless. Thank you and good night."

Some talking heads commenced heated analysis on the speech, and Churchill scanned the ceiling. A Friendbook contact persistently messaged him, and at least three text conversations sat neglected.

At least she didn't mention robot invasion, he thought. When her political party sank low in the polls, its spokespeople always pulled out the complete-human-annihilation card, and Churchill was sick of that tactic. Using fear for political gain was an ancient, reliable, and despicable ploy, in Churchill's view. Churchill's biggest resentment of the president's argument was the defeatist thought behind it. Her notion excluded the possibility of humans being capable of things even the best artificial-intelligence-infused robot couldn't replicate. She sold humanity short. Churchill didn't believe for one second people could be replaced by programs or hunks of metal with ones and zeros echoing inside their metal heads. Then he remembered his own job and glanced down at the picture of George Jetson.

They can take my job, he thought. If they do, they’ll save me from boredom and allow me to do something bigger and better in life. Like Invasion.

"Hey, Chep, wanna get some Invasion on?" Churchill asked.

Chep responded in the affirmative, and minutes later, Friendbook and the other Neonet sites were gone, and the entire wall screen displayed the frenzied action of Invasion. Riley02 joined the game and chided Churchill for taking so long to log on.

Hours later Churchill paused between matches and said, "Clock, upper right corner." A box carved itself out of the wall screen and displayed 2:27 A.M.

"Shit, no way," he exclaimed. Eight hours had passed, but to Churchill the time had felt like only a fraction of that amount. His nasty habit of trading sleep for entertainment wasn't new. Exhausted and unfocused days usually occurred afterward, and Churchill's already dull days became even more unbearable.

"Close Invasion," he said and then yawned. Let me just scan the Neonet before bed, he thought and drew two squares into the air. An hour later four boxes were open, all displaying various bits of information he rapidly perused. A short time later, Churchill decided to lay his head on the desk and rest his eyes for only a second. Two hours later the alarm clock startled him awake. He banged his head against the wall screen.

It was time to get ready for work.

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