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A thrilling 23rd century tale of a man, a gun, and the man pointing the gun at the first man.

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In the 23rd century...

I’d always heard that your life flashes before your eyes before you die. This is patently false. The only thing I saw when a gun was pointed at my head was, well, a gun. And it was cold. Not quite as cold as the voice of the man holding it, but his voice couldn’t kill me. He was yakking on in the typical way of evil villains- “My plan will be flawless with you gone”, “Nothing can stop me now!”, “Are you even listening to me?” Same stuff my teachers always said. I was listening, for the record, just drifting off at bits, but before all this, I suppose a little explanation is in order. The name’s Chris. The man pointing the gun at my head? I had nicknamed him the Voice, because I really didn’t have a lot else to go off of- he had the most remarkably bland and generic face I’ve ever seen.

“Mr. Chris, are you even listening to me? I’m telling you literally everything you wanted to know, and you’re not even paying attention. Jesus, you people are like sheep.” I knew I had to come up with a witty comeback. “You know what? I’m under a little pressure right here.” Shit. Of course, he knew that. But it’s hard to be witty when you have a gun against your head. “Not particularly clever, but not the worst I’ve heard. Ah well.” The Voice pulled the trigger- his face was clean of emotion. I saw the flash from the barrel, heard the sound of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. And then my life flashed right before my eyes.

My first memories were from my childhood. Nothing really important. Typical 23rd century life- listening to war reports around the TV, scrounging for food from the government, fighting over whatever scraps of consumer goods could be found. Things were not pleasant, but it was all I knew until about a decade later. I remember the first time I heard about them- my father was talking about them at the dinner time. It was a cold December that year, the coldest on record. He had just come from work. The snow was still melting on the carpet, gray on gray. My mom had been cooking dinner. The aroma of homemade cooking was good, even when the basic ingredients were scavenged from scraps that were being passed out by aid organizations. He sat down, and I saw a smile on his face once he removed his gas mask. The first time I’d seen him smiling in months, maybe years. My memory is not that good. Normally he’d come home and talk our ears off about the telecommunications equipment he was building- but today was different. My mother asked why he was so happy. “It’s just so great!” he replied in his booming voice. “We had a visit from a representative of that new party! At first, I thought, same as all the others, what are they going to do? But they’ve got a plan to stop the war, and fix the economy, make us great again!” My mother looked at him with a skeptical face. “That’s what they all say, dear. Now eat your dinner!” My father turned around and shook his head. “No, these guys are different, they’re going to do the things no else has the balls to! They’re going to tell the UN off and do what they have to win this, and with the war solved, that’ll free up production at home, and bring back people to staff the farms and the factories. With that, we’ll be a great consumerist nation again!” My mother gave him a harsh look. “What do you mean, tell the UN off?” “That’s the best part!” my father replied energetically. “It’s not like they matter anymore, right? They’re weak! Our stock of ‘banned’ weapons could quickly end the war and bring our boys back.” My mother was still quite skeptical. “What if they use their ‘banned’ weapons?” My father laughed. “It won’t matter if we use ours first!”

I don’t remember the rest of the night. My mother and father got into an argument over the matter, but my mother eventually conceded that they had some good points, and that was the end of that for that night.

I was rocked back to reality by a laugh. “Mr. Chris, did you really think I’d let you go that easily? Just a mere flesh wound until we can have some more fun with you.” I felt something warm, some liquid spreading down my legs. Jesus, did I just piss myself? I felt it. It was blood. I had a small hole just above my waist. I looked back up at the Voice with a confused look on my face. The Voice looked back at me with disdain. “Mr. Chris, for an investigative reporter, you’re really bad at figuring at what’s going on. You’ve been shot in the diaphragm. Don’t try to talk: it’ll only speed up your death.” I tried to talk, but recalling his advice, I started making hand gestures. “Don’t worry about breathing. You’ll still be able to- for a while.” That was not what I was trying to get across- my years of not playing charades had finally caught up with me. “Now, I hope you will be able to pay attention this time. It’s so rude for you not to listen.” I gave him the finger. He fired another round. My life flashed before my eyes again.

This time, it was from when I was an adult. It was a memorable occasion- I’d just gotten out of college, after all, which I’d gotten from the post war boom brought on by the Party’s ending of the War. It was a droll summer day and the announcer was droning like so many bees. The traditional calling of names was being drowned out by my parents discussing the latest actions of the party: “Honey, they had to kick the UN out. They were complaining about our usage of ‘banned’ weapons to end the war. China’s not lodging any complaints, are they?” This remark brought a few snickers from those around us. My mom was indignant, as usual. “They can’t just kick the UN out. They did own that building, and they do have the right to lodge complaints based upon the treaties we signed with them. Even if the building was in one of our cities.” My father shook his head, as usual. “Honey, we broke those treaties according to them by using banned weapons. You can’t have it both ways.” She sighed and decided to give up. “I suppose so...”

I was brought back to reality by someone slapping my face hard. It was one of The Voice’s henchmen. “Ah, you’re back, Mr. Chris. Care to guess where I shot you this time?” I tried to give him the finger. I was missing my middle finger. And I was moving down a hallway. I must have given a look of surprise on my face, or else The Voice was capable of guessing what I was thinking. “Sorry, Chris, but I’ve already got enough of your blood and sweat in my office. I don’t want to get any more on me or on anything I own. No, we’re taking you to a special place for people who try to resist the Party. Really, a tour of the place before we take you out back and shot you. Any questions? No? Okay, let’s begin. This is the top floor of the Party building, which contains many offices of our higher level officials...” I started to drift off and slip back into the past.

Out of college, at my first job as a journalist. It was a dreary workplace- typical of the post-war economic boom. Battleship grays, clinical whites, and this curiously colored carpet that has so far escaped description by even the best artists. It was all very revolting, in retrospect. But we were young and we were high on success- we were investigative journalists tearing apart the last vestiges of the non-Party world, toppling the once mighty figures of our old political machines, digging for dirt in every legal way, and a few other ways. A lot of it was illegal, yes, but no one outside our building knew about it and as long as we were bringing down the hated old political regime I don’t think anyone would’ve complained had they known. My boss had just handed me an assignment- he’d called it the biggest moment of this newspaper and my career. I opened the folder. My jaw dropped. It was the last pre-Party president. He was untouchable, even by our standards. Even the Party had some respect for him as he was elected to a reform platform not so different from theirs. Hell, he was part of the inspiration for the Party’s political platform. I stuttered for a minute. “What have we got on him? He’s... well, you know who he is!” My boss shrugged his shoulders. “Something about being crazy and having a mistress and all that. I don’t know- it’s your job to know. I just hand these things out and make sure you get these things on time. Which, by the way, is very soon, so get on it! This assignment is to take top priority- I’ll make sure your current assignments are handled, and you’ll split this assignment. You take the crazy part, and Sheila will take the mistress part. Deal?” I shook my head yes. There were no words to describe this- if I could pull this off, I’d be the biggest investigative journalist of this century. Hell, even bigger than that- not a lot of journalists have taken down a president. So I took the job and went off to meet the psychiatrists listed in the dossier.

When I got the first address and went to the office, I was very surprised to find the President himself. “Chris, I take it. Please, sit.” He gestured to an empty chair. He was seated in the psychiatrist's chair. I thought this was some sort of trick, but I was interested in what he had to say- the investigative journalist in me was curious how he’d set this up. While I was thinking this, he turned to me. “I suppose the Party sent you.” I chuckled. Clearly, he really was paranoid. “The Party didn’t send me- my newspaper did.” He chuckled again. “And who do you think owns the newspapers? The TV stations, the radio stations? The Party.” I looked at him, fury on my face. “How dare you say such things! The Party supports a free media- the Party doesn’t own any companies!” He threw a folder at me. “No, but the people in it do.” In my curiosity, I decided to leaf through it. It had details of stock transfers and company sales of the newspaper I worked for. Long story short, a series of shell corporations, fake identities, etc, led my newspaper back to the party. I, of course, didn’t believe it, and was insulted he would even suggest it. It’d be a hell of a chain to link all of this together, supposing it was true. “This can’t be! You’re delusional! The dossier says it! A paranoid schizophrenic!” He looked at me with pure rage, but he managed to calm himself. I could still hear the rage, see it in his face- it was under the surface, but still visible. “I am not, and the next person you visit will say that I am. I did visit one once- the rise of your precious Party has saddened me. I need someone to champion my cause, someone whom the Party trusts. So don’t believe the lies they feed you and use the skills they gave you to bring them down. I don’t know how they took power with such ease, but I want you to find out. Check my evidence if you so wish- it is all true. They have vast, secretive powers, and I need you to find out the extent of it all, to document it, to bring them down.” His rage had calmed down by now, but mine had heated up. “To hell with you! This is just more fuel for the fire, old man!” I took the files from him. He sighed and looked down. His only response was short, with an air of sadness. “Fine.” He got up and left. I followed suit and headed to the next doctor on the list. Sure enough, he said that the President was a paranoid schizophrenic among other things. The others all agreed. When I got back to the office, Sheila had gotten the mistress to fess up. I decided to look up his evidence- it’d look great in the report if he had constructed a fantasy world. But then something happened that rocked my world. The exchanges, the transfers of ownership- all true. It just required someone to piece together the puzzle a little better- and that one was me.

“But you never got to piece together the puzzle, did you, Chris?” I sat up in shock, now out of shock. “Oh, you fool, the President was right, but we sure tracked you down fast, didn’t we? Picked you up a day later. Should’ve been a little more careful with your searches, Mr. Chris. That would have at least bought you a little extra time. But then again, we know what you were thinking. We know what everyone in this country is probably thinking. And soon we shall know what everyone is thinking. Curious? Well, you’re at the last and most grand stop on the tour. So behold!” The Voice raised up his arms and lights sparked to life. Rows upon rows of them exposed even more rows of computers- a massive network of computers. Nothing terribly insidious. Just a slight hum and the noise of air conditioning. “You do not get it, of course. This is the most powerful computer on the planet- it took us years to build, all in secret, of course, a joint effort that cost billions upon billions just for hardware. It took even more time to program right- the early iterations of this system were enough to get us into power, and once we got into power, we could direct more funding towards it- but it took thousands of programmers, psychologists, sociologists, all the professions, really- and we pulled it off.” The Voice had a smile plastered on his face. It was only the second time I’d seen him display any emotion. Pride and contempt- not a good combination. “This, Mr. Chris, is the interface. Do you know what we’ve done? What the President was on to? No? You should have read the files. We were very interested in the ideas of Mr. Laplace, Mr. Chris. And boy, have we brought Mr. Laplace’s greatest work to life. Do you know what this is now?” I took the risk to speak. “You... you’re crazy...” I gave him the finger with my remaining hand. He raised his gun, but he put it down. “I’d rather not shot that off here- don’t want to waste another janitorial crew. It’s a beautiful machine, isn’t it? It can calculate everything. Laplace’s demons come to light, of a sort. The demons of the mind, rather. We are able to calculate human actions to a very precise scale- at full power, given enough data about a person, it can even tell us near exactly what a person will do over the course of the next 32 minutes. Not that impressive yet. But when it’s scaled back, it is able to predict trends and give us enough accuracy and data in order to pick the best moves to win power. And as you’ve probably guessed, it already has. And it’s only going to get more powerful the longer we are in power. So, Mr. Chris, as you can see, your fight is pointless.” The Voice displayed his only emotion again. He was very smug with himself. I took a chance on a few more words, but then The Voice silenced me. “We have it running for you now. There is no need to speak. So to answer your question, no, even if you had promised to stay quiet, you would have fessed up eventually, and considering that we can eliminate you know, it’s best for us. And we can use it to suppress such unfavorable trends as you. The President is dead now- we gave him the tour yesterday. And you are next.” Blood gurgled from my mouth. It was quite good that I couldn’t speak, because I had not been thinking those things.

They had forgotten to account for the shock. I was free from their machine for the next few moments- but what was the machine thinking? Would I try to do something foolish and stop the machine? Would I be too depressed by this knowledge and The Voice’s henchmen? My head rolled to my side, and I saw the interface. It was a standard computer. They didn’t account for the shock, and they’ve become far too reliant on the machine. I can do this. All I had to do was run a wipe of the system by deleting the main system files. I racked my brain to try and remember the keys needed. The Voice walked up to me, got real close to my face. “I see you’re eying the computer.” He shoved the interface in my face. “Look at it and despair! Guards, clean out my office. One of you should stay behind to help me carry him.” So they thought I would despair. Excellent. Computer, then the C drive, system files, delete. “This system is impervious to outside assault, you know. No way to connect to the outside, all the data is fed in through terminals like these. Massive power surge protectors, battery backup to pick up for power outage until the main generators kick on. In a year, they’ll be nuclear. What do you have to say about that, Mr. Chris?” I kicked him in the genitalia. The guard was on the machine as well: he didn’t expect it, and I shot him in the chest with The Voice’s gun. I put the gun against The Voice, grabbed the interface, and deleted the system files. “How’s that... for all the variables...” I was weak from blood loss. The Voice only laughed. “You idiot... we have a backup. The program is not that large, it simply takes large amounts of computing power to run.” I stared at him. “I think you’re lying. I think you didn’t see this coming. And you’re afraid.” On the inside, I was scared. I didn’t think about that possibility. Surely they had a backup? The Voice looked at me. “Don’t think about shooting the mainframe. There’s bulletproof glass in front of it. Even if you could hit a few servers, it’d be no problem for us to replace them.” He was right, of course. There was the slightest glare in some places from the overhead lights. The interface flared to life. “And we’ve even gotten the computer program back online. The guards shall be getting a bonus for this.” But I still had a gun and an idea. I got back on the interface. “What are you doing, Mr. Chris? There is no point in playing this game anymore. You’re a dead man.” I shot The Voice. He was getting annoying. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what flashed before his eyes as he died. It didn’t really matter right now, I had to see if there was something else I could do. I went back to the interface- surely something I could disable? These guys were the ultimate control freaks, after all. And then I found it- I could overclock the computer, and lower the heating. The computers picked up speed before abruptly burning out- that’d be expensive to replace. The guards came in moments later and opened fire. My life flashed before my eyes on more time... I was ruminating on the saying that life flashes before your eyes before you die, and a man was pointing a gun at my head.

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