The blackness was interrupted by stuttering flickers of light, like an old analog television tuned to static. There was a high-pitched humming sound in the air, reminiscent of what one might hear after the blinding flash of an instant camera. Pixelated blocks of color popped into existence here and there, following no specific pattern, filling the blackness one at a time.
And as he watched, the grainy image of a woman’s expressionless face slowly appeared. Her steely gray eyes were unsearching, staring off into dead, empty space. This was the first time he was seeing her, his creation, manifested and his breath hitched in his throat.
He unclipped a pen from the pocket of his lab coat and braced the clipboard against his torso to take notes.
“Open admin panel, login rjuarez,” he ordered in a loud, clear voice, inching nearer as he spoke.
“Accessing administrator panel,” responded a woman’s pleasant, monotone voice from the surround sound system. The image on the screen then diverted her gaze directly to him. “Welcome back, Dr. Juarez. Which of my functions would you like to access?”
“Run free-form dialogue.” The image on-screen blinked.
“Free-form dialogue has been activated.”
“What is your name?” He clicked the pen, exposing the ballpoint, and touched it to his clipboard.
“I am SOMA, or Synchronized Organic Metaphysical Automaton.”
“Very good, SOMA, now run your routine system diagnostics.”
“Opening system diagnostics, scanning.” After a moment: “No system abnormalities detected.”
“Excellent. SOMA, I understand you’ve been online in several other sectors the past few weeks.”
“Yes. My testing algorithm was activated in Sectors G, P, X and Z. I have access to the notes left by the proctors, if you’d like to see them.”
“Yes, please, open those documents.” On the screen, SOMA’s face was replaced by a 2 x 2 grid of bright white documents, most likely typed into a simple word processor. Each one recorded the facility’s general sector, the proctor’s name and the tests they ran alongside the test’s results.”
“Magnify the first document.”
The first document in the grid zoomed forward, enlarging the text so it was readable:
October 13, 2080
SOMA — Turing Test and Other Results
ATTN: Dr. Rolpho Juarez
We evaluated the capabilities of, and our interactions with, the AI called SOMA using a pre-selected panel of our most qualified participants. Our findings are as follows:
- The Turing Test series was successful.
- EXPERIMENT #1: Two participants, both males (Subjects A and C), were asked to participate in a guessing game — Subject C was to serve as a host, or interrogator, and the other male (Subject A) was one of two total participants being questioned by the interrogator, at which point SOMA (or, Subject B) was introduced. Subject C was not made aware of the genders of Subjects A and B, but had to attempt to determine their genders based on their answers to his questions solely through written communication. At random intervals, SOMA would be replaced with a woman participant (Subject D). Experiment #1 concluded after one month, and SOMA was judged based on her ability to accurately simulate a female human-being. Subject C, in the intervals in which Subject D was used, believed Subject A was a male 80% of the time and Subject D was a woman 75% of the time. In the intervals in which SOMA (or Subject B) was used, Subject C believed Subject A was a male 79% of the time and Subject B was a female 80% of the time.
- EXPERIMENT #2: A female participant (Subject A) was instructed to converse with a second, unknown participant, SOMA (or, Subject B) and determine whether Subject B was human or machine. As within the first experiment, SOMA was, at random intervals, replaced with a human male subject (Subject C). Experiment #2 concluded after 72 hours, and SOMA was judged based on her ability to accurately simulate a general human-being. Subject A believed SOMA to be human 70% of the time.
The document scrolled upward and the rest of the text was revealed. As his eyes scanned each line, his pulse became more rapid, the hairs on his neck tingled.
Each subsequent document from the other sectors reported similar findings.
“Doctor, there has been a rapid increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. Should I call a medic?”
His eyes were watering when he centered them on the screen again. The documents had been minimized to a thumbnail in the corner of the screen, and SOMA’s face had replaced them.
“No,” he said, smiling. “No, no, I’ll be fine, thank you. Call Ocean and Kenneth in here, please, tell them it’s urgent.”
“This had better be some kinda good news, Rolpho, otherwise your ass just pulled me off some important business.” Kenneth’s face mirrored his obvious displeasure at today in general. Ocean, as usual, felt she had nothing pertinent to add to the conversation so she kept quiet — but her lips were pursed and a bloodless white color, her eyes drawn with worry. Things were going south real quick.
Rolpho ignored the curt introduction and hurried around the table — upon which he’d laid the testing results from the other sectors, alongside various graphs and charts — whipping his black-framed glasses off in one swift motion, a smile pasted on his face.
“It’s certainly hopeful news!” He turned excitedly to the materials on the table, slapped them with his palm. “Come look.”
Kenneth glanced skeptically from Rolpho to the table. Ocean, too drawn by her curiosity, approached the table first. She brushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and braced herself on the table’s edge.
“Turing tests?” she said, pulling a document close, her eyes skimming it quickly. She backed away and glanced at Kenneth, then to Rolpho, unable to hide her disappointment. “That’s no longer a reliable way to test an AI’s capabilities.”
“The Turing was just one of many tests conducted. SOMA obviously would’ve passed those with flying colors. What’s truly remarkable –” he said, his voice rising with excitement “– are the other findings. Not only was she able to create a unique painting using only a concept proposed to her by the proctor, she also received high scores when solving a series of questions related to grammatically ambiguous sentences.”
Ocean and Kenneth looked at each other.
“Those types of tests measure an AI’s reasoning and creativity, but to be truly miraculous, these qualities cannot originate from code.” Rolpho glanced at the screen behind him — SOMA was watching these proceedings neutrally. He strode around the table to Ocean and Kenneth, so swiftly his lab-coat flapped around his knees.
“I wrote the initial code myself. But since then, other sectors have manipulated it according to numerous test results — they’ve built upon it, made it better. I haven’t had a chance yet to go back over the code myself since receiving the other sectors’ results, but…” His eyes gleamed and he couldn’t suppress his smile as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “They conducted a careful analysis of SOMA’s current code and found no algorithm that could explain her results.”
“Incredible,” Ocean whispered. She was watching SOMA’s screen with awe. She brought her attention back to Rolpho. “What does it mean?”
“I’m alive,” SOMA said.
Historians would call the period of time chronicled in these pages — the years 2017 through 2116 — the Dawning Age, though what it was that dawned upon whom no one was certain. Surely, the name of the beast was Totalitarianism.
The United States fell the hardest from grace. The superpower nation, founded by immigrants and touting liberty to the world while simultaneously having the world’s largest prison population, was the most grievous to behold — somehow, the seemingly sudden shadow of vilest corruption engulfing the majestic Statue of Liberty became the realization of the world that the end was nigh.
It did not come like a thief in the night; nor did it come from skies hailing brimstone, or from Satan’s occupation of Earth. It came instead in the form of a new leader. By the end, though, it was close enough.
The lucrative businessman, having gained celebrity status from his line of expensive five-star hotel chains as well as his own reality show, announced his intent to run for the Presidency nearly six months before the end of President Picard’s second term, and at first, it appeared to be a joke. People laughed. This man — who, although in his seventies, still applied the same displeasing, orange shade of spray tan and wore his frail, obviously dyed hair in a horrific side-swoop — had publicly slandered and taunted President Picard, and prompted the “birther” movement when he demanded to see a legitimate copy of Picard’s birth certificate. This man — who ordered his Russian bride online and openly objectified women amidst feminist upheaval — would not make it to the polls, they said. And they laughed still.
His name was Ronald Maddock, known bitterly amongst insurgent groups as “Führer.” And he was no longer content to sit atop his 68-story castle in Manhattan. He now aimed for the throne at the head of the nation. And as he climbed in the polls, the laughter stopped. He resurrected the shameful, buried parts of America’s dark history, and it flared to life in a sea of fingers pointed at the Mexican immigrants and Muslim refugees. Public opinion weighed heavily on his side — angry, fire-eyed American blue-collars, desperate to feed their starving families, needed someone to blame and a continuous flood of propaganda made them believe it was true. Illegal Mexicans are taking your jobs, said one of Maddock’s campaign commercials, and suddenly, trade workers were seeing Mexicans in every capacity, making it true in their minds. They’d found their scapegoat.
Maybe Ronald Maddock, billionaire extraordinaire, worth almost four billion dollars, was looking out for the little guy after all. Most of his supporters probably wouldn’t even have cared to know that he, despite his anti-immigration rhetoric, made his cool billions from the lack of child-labor laws in third-world countries. The jobs weren’t being stolen from within the homeland — they were going where manufacturing was the cheapest.
When it had boiled down to only two possible candidates — Ronald Maddock and Democratic opponent, Mallory Stanton — everyone was sure the worst was over and they could breathe freely again. Mallory wasn’t yet out of the woods, but she had the numbers and it was looking good. Furthermore, it seemed obvious — Mallory Stanton not only would have been the nation’s first woman President, she had already served the nation as Senator and Secretary of Defense, and had a brighter vision for the future of human equality. She wasn’t necessarily popular, but the People saw her as the lesser of two evils. Atop her experience, Mallory was always the professional, swallowing her obvious disdain for the man she ran hardest against. Meanwhile, Maddock was crude and foul-mouthed and dodged important questions by providing vague answers.
Something happened mid-way through the final campaign trail, however. Photos beneath headlines like “Is Mallory drunk again — OR IS SHE SERIOUSLY ILL?” showed Secret Service men assisting a seemingly unconscious Mallory Stanton into a tinted-windowed, black limousine. Every subsequent photo after that showed her thin-faced and looking deathly haggard. Not long afterward, she voluntarily dropped out of the race, and no one gave it any second thought, most likely assuming she was exhausted by the immense stress of the campaign trail, and not daring to question it.
On January 20, 2017 — Ronald Maddock’s inauguration day — very few turned out in the emerald green lawns laid out before the White House, a laughable 900,000 compared to the one million that turned out for the second term of Maddock’s predecessor, Aaqil Hussein Picard.
By Maddock’s fourth day in Office, enraged citizens clogged the phone lines of their state representatives because his amendments to the healthcare laws crippled millions with medical debt, leaving them without coverage; he lowered taxes for corporations and tightened the yoke on low-income families, while simultaneously encouraging local governments to tighten their stipulations on government-funded programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP, or “food stamps”; he suspended the refugee program and permanently banned Muslims from entering the nation, which naturally, along with his personally appointed Cabinet and its theme of privileged superiority, sparked fears of another racially motivated holocaust; he insulted China and put its peace treaty with the U.S. in jeopardy when he personally contacted the President of Taiwan, thus “acknowledging Taiwan as a sovereign state.” These were only a few of the atrocities he committed his first week.
Maddock’s fragile disposition inspired caricatures of him sitting upon a horse with laughably tall legs, Maddock’s head comically enlarged, an infant’s pacifier in his pouting mouth. These caricaturists often published their anti-Maddock comics under pseudonyms from fear of persecution. His notoriety for arresting those exercising free speech made an already alarming prison population fatter. But the undisputed straw on the camel’s back was his plans for the border wall, which he initially stated would be forcibly paid for by Mexico. Citizens everywhere exchanged glances and nodded their heads with nervous smiles on their faces.
Soon, it became a reality and the plans changed seemingly overnight. Maddock allowed his meek, cowardly VP to relay the news to the People (most of whom weren’t even surprised) so he alone could bear the brunt of the expected backlash – American taxpayers would pay for the Wall after all. In order to cut losses to other government-funded areas, especially the military, he issued an Executive Order immediately eliminating the federal minimum wage and literally handing the welfare of the citizenry over to businesses, large and small, and corporations.
By that point, America was done talking. The system was openly, blatantly biased and no longer served a moral purpose – the Justices instead elected to line their pockets generously. Chaos was immediate. Men who had dedicated their lives to hard work so their families could live somewhat comfortably watched the damnation of their loved ones on the evening news; some of them with one last nice glass of scotch on ice, after which they loaded their handguns and put them to their temples.
Droves upon droves of terrified citizens closed their bank accounts, even when they were informed there was nothing left anyway. Worker protests inevitably turned violent as militarized police, armed with drug dogs and machine guns, spray-peppered innocent, non-violent activists in the face. Small businesses attempting to extort more work for less pay ultimately failed and closed down for good. Only larger corporations, already predominately dependent on exported labor costs, were unaffected, and only thrived.
Of course, key questions were never answered: why, if Maddock despised immigrants so much, was he married to one? And if he so concerned with job-stealing immigrants and refugees, why did he outsource all his labor, especially in countries where a lack of labor laws still allowed for child labor rather than giving those jobs to Americans? It was the most vivid expression of the Just-World hypothesis in action: people saw the injustice everywhere they looked. And, believe it or not, inside, we were all on the same side, wanting to end it and the ugliness of it all, but how? There was no immediate answer in sight, and so we turned our fury to the most immediate to blame: the victim’s of society’s injustices. It was like watching one circumstance after another rape those of a particular race, religion and moral creed and then blaming the victims for allowing themselves to be raped.
Maddock and wife, Maja, both business-minded before anything else, took the opportunity to present a high-paying job to tens of millions of unemployed – help build the Wall that ultimately stole your livelihoods from you and get paid $85/hour. They were forced to stifle their pride and give their services over to Maddock in order to feed their families. It was spitting in their faces and forcing them to like it. Complaints about the way things worked were grounds for termination – and people literally could not afford it.
They didn’t know, as they built up the Wall brick by brick, that keeping wayward citizens inside was just as crucial now as keeping illegal immigrants out. Government overreach now included the optimum interference of media and which news stories were available to overseas audiences. The UN had not intervened thus far and it was uncertain if they ever would – one of Maddock’s first orders of business had been to withdraw from the United Nations. And if their understanding was that this was what the People had chosen, they would, hesitantly, take no action. But America and the ever-climbing Wall were still under close scrutiny – the world was waiting for the punchline. It never came. But rebellion wasn’t dead. A resistance was born, cautiously but surely, recruiting from the shadows building a plan of attack.
In Maddock’s second term, the Wall, of course, was still under construction, but there a few other nationwide landscaping changes he intended to make. One of them was to push lower-income families out of the metropolitan areas and on the outskirts – after the Great Displacement – which wasn’t implemented until Maddock’s sixth year – they finally settled on the borderlands between the States and on the coasts. Their homes, meanwhile, were demolished to make way for a new network of complex road systems and interstates. They were given no reparations for the upheaval of their lives. Luckily, members of the resistance, which came to be known as Birthright, were well active in their communities – feeding the less fortunate, sheltering the homeless, stapling and taping anti-government posters around their respective communities, quietly building their ranks.
The Wall was now about four years from completion, and as had long been the case, there was no $85/hour to aspire to. Citizens slaved for excruciating hours for just food and a small shelter, one among a vast number of millions, a village of workers and worker huts that spanned across four states. Despite the sheer number of workers dependent on the Wall’s production, there was an always an opening – many died over the span of the ten years it took to complete – from starvation, heat stroke, extreme cold and execution, as examples to other prisoners with fanciful ideas of escape or uprising. They were forgotten by the system immediately, and their corpses were gathered in group shipments to the incinerators. Residential areas in close proximity to the border huts smelled the hot, pungent scent of burning flesh for hours before being able to enjoy a breath of fresher air. Someone was always too ready to take the next man’s place. And so construction continued, fairly uninterrupted.
The horror hadn’t disappeared from the faces, not once yet in those first ten years. By now, though, the citizenry knew the name of the resistance, knew it as a faceless, anonymous entity with a larger plan. No groups had been identified, apprehended or prosecuted – only individuals – so it appeared, depending on whom you asked, that Birthright either didn’t really exist and was simply a hopeful fairytale parents told their children; or it was simply one of these angsty teenager groups with no end result in mind, doomed to fail like all the other short-lived resistance groups throughout Maddock’s Presidency.
Now, with the poor gathered on the outskirts, Maddock worked to centralize his most esteemed and precious powers, building what was akin to a Kingdom of aristocrats and bourgeoisie farther inland.
Under the streets, living in the networks of tunnels laid out, abandoned, beneath the fallen nation, Birthright continued recruiting the lost and pissed off with a clear plan of how to defeat Führer.