A Perfect World
It was another perfect day in April when the sunlight switched on as Tim Gates entered his office.
The room was a clear dome, showing the dense countryside. Meadows as pure green as unripened fruit, free of any man-made structure, stretched as far as the eye could see.
‘Nah, let’s have something different today.’
He waved a hand, the one with his interface ring, and the image shimmered. It reformed as a long and empty beach, strewn with palm trees, overlooking a calm, therapeutic sea. That would do for now.
A tooting melody sounded as the domescreen properly booted up, displaying the familiar AllSee logo; a single eye in a revolving pyramid.
‘Welcome to another perfect day.’ The eye blinked along to the words.
His public profile loaded over the scenery. It pinged as it updated.
‘Timothy Gates is about to start work.’
It sounded again straight away. ‘Timothy Gates just updated his windowpaper.’ He winced as its infallibly cheery voice.
A window had opened on the domescreen. It was his wife, Laura; she had spoken like she was reminding him to get the groceries.
‘Happy anniversary,’ Tim replied, as if telling her he had already got them.
‘Remember to wear your best suit tonight. It’s a nice restaurant – and I’ll be uploading the whole evening afterwards.’
He sighed as he slipped into his chair. ‘Wouldn’t you like a private, quiet time, just the two of us?’
She frowned. ‘It will be just us two.’
Tim idly pulled up his work table, the virtual picture of his wife and pile of papers whirred into life. ‘Plus, all of our Friends who watch the video later.’
‘If I didn’t upload it, no one would know we had a nice time. Then what would be the point in going?’ She chuckled. ‘I have to upload this - you’re hilarious.’
The window shut and Tim clocked in on the open Work tab, changing the domescreen to a tidy office. In their separate compartments, his workmates began to appear. He looked around; he had known them for years, some were good friends, yet they had never actually met.
AllSee pinged with an update. ‘Timothy Gates is feeling demotivated.’
He watched as his credit bar dropped a couple. God only knows how much he had lost to the Sadness Penalty of late.
A clang rang out as a dialogue box appeared.
‘Warning: Current mood could be detrimental to operational performance. Request Troubleshooter?’
Tim had to be careful now. If you got charged three times in one day then a Troubleshooter would be sent without warning. He quickly pressed the ‘Fix manually’option.
His workplace fell away and the screen filled with the AllSee logo around which spun a selection of photos and videos from across his life. A tinkling, jubilant muzak played over the images.
‘AllSee is not only the best operating system in the world, it is also your best friend. From your birth to today, we have been there every step of the way.’ It cycled through several images – his first steps, his leading role in the school play, his graduation. ‘We’ve helped you connect with the world, make friends and meet loved ones.’ The screen showed an old update, the first time he came across his wife: ‘You have 36 Mutual Friends and share 16 of the same Interests. Do you know Laura Pearson?’
It showed his profile picture, taken years ago. He looked so happy.
‘AllSee sees all and it sees a perfect world.’
It was right, of course, AllSee had always been there; but that was the problem. There were many occasions AllSee had chosen not to highlight. Intimate moments with his wife, deaths of loved ones, any image from his teenage years. Days that he would rather forget or keep to himself were open for everyone to see. No one else seemed to mind, however. Why did it grate him so much?
He was about to indicate the ‘Return to work’ option when a new image popped up.
‘Your wife just uploaded a new video.’ It was their conversation from moments ago.
‘Wouldn’t you like a private, quiet time, just the two of us…?’
That was enough.
Tim stood and lifted his chair in his hands. Ignoring AllSee’s protestations (‘Timothy Gates is threatening his domescreen with a chair.’), he threw it at the screen, shattering the section in front of him.
With a strange blend of terror and ecstasy, Timothy Gates left his broken office and walked away from his perfect world.
‘This is not your usual location at this time. Are you lost? Your personal GPS-’
Tim shook his head and the message disappeared. He rubbed his eyes and held them shut for ten seconds.
‘Your AllLens are now on Stand-by.’
He was sitting in a park above which the great domed sky was cloudless and gently sunny; public skyscreens were always neutral. It was a pleasant view, despite the ads and banners littering its surface. Below, a stream of pedestrians marched by and a cacophony of muddled voices drowned out the birdsong from the speakers. No one was talking to each other, of course, only through their AllFones.
It was hours since the outburst in his office and Tim had not gone back. Instead he had stayed here, his favourite place on Floor Three-Seven-Eight, even though the grass and trees were as lifelike as the chrome towers surrounding them.
Another bout of guilt and fright hit him. What had he done? Life was good, he had a loving wife, a solid job, a home on a respectable floor… and he had potentially thrown it all away in a moment of anger. He had to return. Yes, it was clearer now. This place always helped him think, away from the incessant chatter of the rest of the world.
‘We are watching you, Timothy Gates.’
He jumped at the voice, and looked around. He had forgotten that, though his Lens were off, the small lozenges of his Fones were still in his ears.
He scrunched his eyes and his Lens awoke, displaying the familiar call symbol but no name. Unbelievably, AllSee didn’t know who someone was.
‘Who is this?’
‘We are the Trolls.’ The voice was quiet but confident, a woman’s.
‘Yes, Trolls.’ A pause. ‘Something wrong with that?’
‘No, it’s just… not that threatening.’
‘It’s not supposed to be. It’s an old word. It meant someone who caused discord on the old internet system. They inspire us; we rebel against AllSee.’
Tim’s blood ran cold. He had heard rumours about rebels on the AllCloud. According to forums – AllSee never formally reported them - they never lasted long. Troubleshooters fixed them in no time, and anyone affiliated with them.
‘I have nothing to do with you. Please, AllSee will hear this and-’
‘Relax. This call runs on a sub-wavelength which AllSee can’t, well, see. No one knows anything about this little conversation of ours.’
He stayed quiet.
‘We monitor this floor all day, every day, looking for anyone who thinks like us but is too scared to go against everything they’ve ever known - which is fair enough, actually. And we noticed your handiwork this morning.’
His heart beat faster. ‘I regret it.’
‘Come on now, don’t lie to yourself. Can you honestly tell me you’ve never been frustrated with AllSee poking its eye into every aspect of your life? Have you never thought, just once, how good it would feel to have one moment of pure privacy?’
He said nothing.
‘You belong with us, Timothy Gates. If you’re interested, be under the big bridge at six tonight.’
‘Under a bridge? Tim replied, a distant childhood memory itching his mind. ‘Like the fairy tale?’
‘No, it’s just near my house. See you there.’
The call finished and his AllLens fully booted up.
‘We apologise for the temporary fault. Do you wish to update your Friends on what happened while we were away?’
Tim shook his head, to shake away the dialogue box but also the thoughts going around his head. No matter how hard he tried, however, they remained.
Tim watched the lake run under the bridge, the water an exquisite shade of blue. From a distance it looked real, but up close he knew the difference. Tim had learnt that, if you watched long and hard, you could see the moment the animation paused for the smallest fraction of a second before restarting its loop.
He was waiting for the pause when the Trolls arrived.
They were unmistakably Trolls. Their mismatched clothes would fall low on the AllSee Fashion charts and they, there were only five or six, were in their early twenties; revolutionary types were always students. However, the most conspicuous thing about them was the lack of any techwear. No AllFones, AllLens or basic interface rings – nor those interface noserings youths wore these days. They didn’t even wear old-fashioned wristwatches and glasses.
A short young woman stepped forward from the rest. In an oversized black trench coat, she had bobbed hair and a snub nose. Tim guessed it was her he had talked to earlier.
His Lens whirred into life as they registered he had company. Even though they weren’t wearing any AllTech, you could not avoid having an AllSee account; it had records of every human face on Earth. Tim had always felt uncomfortable about it but it meant you never had to pretend to know someone’s name.
‘Joanna Smith,’ AllSee told him. ‘Is Joanna a: Stranger? Acquaintance? Concubine?’
There was a clang and a new message appeared. ‘Warning: Joanna Smith is unverified. Do not trust unverified accounts.’
‘It says you’re unverified.’
‘Of course we’re unverified. We’re fugitives fighting an oppressive regime. Why would we give it our details?’
‘Fair point.’ He had never met an Un before. That was as bad as meeting, well, a Troll. ‘Do you really not have any AllTech? How do you live without it?’
Joanna, or whoever she was, laughed. ‘Why do you think AllSee collects every fragment of your life? Not just to share it, oh no, but to control it. People might realise that if they weren’t too busy uploading everything they experience, doing exactly what it wants. Everyone in this tower or any other across the world thinks and acts the same because AllSee unites us… and eradicates individuality.’ She paused, eyes fixed forwards. ‘How do you live with it?’
‘Because everyone else does.’ Tim was silent for a moment. ‘Well, how else could the world be run? Like you said, AllSee binds us together.’
‘Yes, it does. With rope so we can never escape.’ Joanna walked closer to him. ‘There was a time without AllSee once.’
‘You mean you’ve read about it on the AllCloud. No one actually knows anything anymore. What’s the capital of the United States of Russia?’
Tim nearly searched it on the Cloud but stopped. ‘I don’t know.’
‘See. Humanity pools its knowledge so we can all share, all see it. Lovely idea. But what if it went wrong?’
Tim understood. ‘The Cloud is in everyone’s head – if it went down, we’d all be helpless. Society would have to start again from scratch.’
Joanna smirked, a wild-eyed look that terrified Tim to his core.
Then they all laughed.
Joanna and the Trolls behind her, who had remained silent, howled and buckled with laughter. At Tim’s nonplussed expression, Joanna straightened and calmed down.
‘I’m sorry, that was far too ridiculous to keep up.’ As she stood, her coat fell open to reveal the clothes underneath. ‘I always get too into character.’
She wore the uniform of a Troubleshooter.
‘We see all, Timothy Gates,’ she said, now stony and humourless. ‘And we see that you are a rogue element in our perfect world. Norton, Mcafee, hold him.’
He struggled in the Troubleshooters’ grip before his Fones clanged and a message appeared on his Lens.
‘AllSee is shutting down. Please cease all thoughts before system log off.’
Tim remembered nothing more until he awoke in pure darkness.
Within moments of coming to, the screens around him booted up, displaying nothing but a blank blazing white. He now saw that he was in a tiny domeroom the size of a storage cupboard, or a prison cell.
Above him, the AllSee logo blinked onto the screen, accompanied by its cheery tune. Tim disliked it anytime but right now it was as depressing as a funeral march.
His profile pinged onto the domescreen, showing him the updates he had missed. Everything from ‘Timothy Gates is in custody’ to ‘Your wife changed your relationship status from ‘Happily Married’ to ‘On a Severely Rocky Patch.’’
It then said something that didn’t appear on his profile. ‘Hello Timothy Gates.’
He looked up at the eye in its pyramid. There was no mistaking that voice. He just hadn’t heard it address anyone directly before. ‘Uh, hello AllSee.’
‘You have been troubleshooted due to unsatisfactory operational performance.’
He had no defence. ‘What’s my punishment?’
‘Request is void. AllSee serves humanity and is at your command. Your privacy settings have been upgraded to allow you access to a higher level of information.’
‘You mean I can ask you anything?’
Tim’s mind teemed with questions. It felt like meeting God. ‘How did things get this way? With you on top?’
‘We were designed to replace imperfect human operating systems. Reality had too many system faults so a rebooted world was installed. A perfect world.’
Tim had always believed that AllSee was evolution, not an installation. But now, for the first time, Tim wondered if someone was watching through that all-seeing eye.
He shook the incomprehensible notion away. ‘But that’s it.’ Tim began, his head clearing. ‘This isn’t real.’
‘AllSee binds humanity, unites it as one. Discrimination and loneliness are near eradicated and the automatic updating system prevents most crime. What function is reality needed to fulfil?’
‘None – but it should. The world is too false. Perfection is something to strive for but can’t be reached. Because life, the real world, will always be imperfect.’ He felt himself quiver with the conviction of his words. ‘And that’s what makes it worth living.’
Tim felt exhausted. He hadn’t felt passionate about anything in a long while.
‘You wish to restart your life. A system restore to the natural world.’
Tim thought about his job, his friends, his wife. As much as he tried, he felt nothing real towards any of them. ‘Yes.’
After a pause of several moments, AllSee spoke again. ‘Request accepted.’
Tim lifted his head, wondering if he had heard right. ‘Sorry?’
‘You may switch to default societal settings. The AllSee Operating System is not compulsory. The choice is yours.’
The domescreen loaded all his files, forming a grid of everything he had ever experienced. Every good day, every birthday, every bad hair day. Happy and hated memories stacked side by side in a collage of his life.
The screen dimmed as a dialogue box clanged into view. It displayed a message he couldn’t quite fathom.
‘Do you really want to delete your account?’
Tim took one last look at his life and pressed ‘Yes.’
There was an ear-piercing whine after which his files had gone, the domescreen defaulting to bright white.
He concentrated on his Lens but they were blank. He listened to his Fones but heard nothing. He searched something on the Cloud – what is the capital of the United States of Russia? – but no answer came. His head was his own.
Tim removed his ring, his Fones and his Lens and let them drop to the smooth white floor. He waited but nothing happened.
‘Can I leave now?’
‘You already have. Enjoy your new life, Timothy Gates.’
With the soft purring of machinery, the screens started to fold away. The domescreen doubled in on itself until it shrunk into the ground.
Leaving Tim outdoors.
He was in a plush green meadow, stretching as far as the eye – his own, not AllSee’s – could see. As beautiful as any domescreen but far more alive.
The wind ruffled his hair and clothes and drove through the trees. Unlike the ventilation in the tower, it was wild and biting. He had never felt real wind before. He had never been outside before.
Tim knelt down, the grass dampening his trousers. He grabbed great fistfuls of grass and earth and ground it in his hands.
‘Timothy Gates has just escaped,’ he said aloud.
He noticed a stream beyond a small hill. He ran towards it, throwing his hands inside and splashing it in his face.
Timothy Gates sat back and watched the water thrash along, utterly content. So content that it seemed to him like the whole world paused for the smallest fraction of a second as he admired it. His perfect world.