By 2062, the country had finally become a peaceable place to live. No more wars or terrorist threats. Everybody had friended everybody else. And the legislature had been replaced, for all practical purposes, with DEMOWEB.
Time after time, Congress hadn’t insta-polled well. Questions like, “Do you believe politicians respond to your personal needs?” or, “Would you like to see a smaller, more efficient government?” had ultimately sounded the death knell. There were representatives no longer, only Respondents ready to act upon data from DEMOWEB’s consensus-modeling applications.
The Centerpol complex in New Jersey was the hub for popular initiatives. No one doubted the efficiency of the government’s program, which enacted voter preferences at the touch of a button. If there was one thing those wizards at Centerpol knew how to do, it was design some killer software.
The President was also a populist choice. President Bieber was now an elderly man, but after twenty-four years in office, still looking good. And his numbers continued to trend upwards, or at least hold steady. This was despite the fact that he wielded little more power than a prom king. In one Online Constitutional Convention after another, DEMOWEB users had voted to limit executive duties to posing with dignitaries and attending funerals of celebrities.
True, life expectancy wasn’t quite what it was back in the day, probably because people demanded access to drugs and cures before they’d been proven effective. Compared to angels or crystals, the scientific method never received many likes. There was talk of universities paying researchers out of athletic budgets, but that was the kind of chitchat which circled the virtual drain and never reached the point of a voter referendum.
Sometimes folks began to sweat when prompted to a difficult vote by their handheld devices and yearned to flip ahead to view Results first. How could one possibly know whether or not to like something when other friends’ choices were hidden from view?
Fortunately, everyone knew that you could slide a paperclip across one corner of the screen and it would flash ahead—for a split second. Long enough for a reassuring insight to dawn: “You know, that’s pretty much the way I was going to vote, too.”
Janey had always been a little off-center.
She was tantalized by the thought of straying off the grid. Maybe only a bit, or just for a while.
She had qualms about instant tabulation. She knew she could get carried away at times and wasn’t sure if it was the greatest thing for her initial preferences to become law. She would rather scroll through the endless Lobbylinks first, just to buy herself time to think.
It could be frustrating to see an issue go viral in an instant. Often, she flipped ahead to vote totals just to see if an election result was already a fait accompli.
Sometimes, if she saw a consensus only beginning to form in either direction, Janey entertained the thought of voting the opposite way, just to slow the DEMOWEB juggernaut down and give everyone out there a breather.
By the way—those handheld clickers were really, really spectacular and updated bimonthly. You could pick them up from a bin at any Wall2Wall and then just key in your Social Stability number.
Janey worked at Wall2Wall, in the paint department.
Somewhere along the line, she must have liked art, or an art teacher, or simply updated her status while she was in art class. That was often the way that sort of thing found its way into one’s profile. Before Janey entered high school, the interest in art had become a fixed part of her identity.
At the Wall2Wall, Janey often found herself bored, but after all, it was a job, and they actually paid you to stand there while you texted. The part she liked best was mixing paints from swatches customers brought in until she had found a perfect match. Occasionally that could surprise you. You might find you needed, for example, a little green in the mix to get the red of a finish just right.
Once, playfully, she had splotched a little sunburst of acrylic paint around her plastic nametag.
This made most customers look twice, then shake their heads and smile.
Janey liked that, creating a tiny ripple effect.
She had met Bob at a nearby Display Storage Facility (DSF), which is what art galleries were called nowadays.
Most galleries had been rendered obsolete by virtual tours that could seamlessly bridge museums across the globe. No need for lines or velvet ropes or security guards.
If you felt like having a guide, you could summon one of several different celebrity holograms or mute them—up to you.
Something appealed to Janey about the live experience that she couldn’t quite fathom.
A quiet feeling, empty and yet not.
The moment her field of vision crisscrossed with Bob’s felt like a car crash.
From a bench, Janey scrutinized a painting of two circles.
The two circumferences overlapped very slightly, and in the middle ground was just a touch of brightness, or agitation.
It was certainly not in any way harmful to oneself, like staring at an eclipse, but somehow the whole thing unsettled her. She felt tears start to well up and averted her gaze.
Then Janey spotted Bob smiling at her. She smiled back.
It was the first emotional connection she had made since she was a girl at school.
School, for most, was the true leveling influence. Those poor teachers had been reduced to freaks, trying to put on a show for all the learning styles and learners: gesturing large and flitting around for the Visuals, talking in stage voices or blowing into kazoos for the Auditories, or pausing every now and then to let the Tactiles come up and have their feel.
When Janey thought back to her school days, she could remember a cavalcade of color and sound, but it was all very much like a slightly nauseating carnival ride. The only real constant had been the clickers.
Clickers allowed students instant input into what they were taught, how they were taught, and how much they wished to learn. In the lower grades, students were always mashing on the buttons just to watch the teacher contort like a marionette. In the upper grades, students flooded the devices with inane questions each morning just to keep instructors off their back.
And so, what Janey recalled learning was: not much. No wonder she had trouble making up her mind!
Janey was the girl who held onto her stuffed animals just a bit later and dreamed distractedly out the classroom window just a bit longer or laughed at birthday parties just a little louder. And cried at sad movies, but didn’t choose to click immediately on one of the alternate endings.
Against her parents’ wishes, she had said enough is enough after high school, declining to pursue an ASD (Athletic Support Degree) in college, although she certainly had the tools for cheerleading. She also held off on setting up an account at ahoy.mate.com. There, based on your preferences, you were paired with someone of similar background, tastes, and physiognomy. The whole courtship thing was a snap.
Oh Janey, Janey.
At least she hadn’t become an Outlier, openly rebelling against the government and earning herself a trip to Tokeville for some serious mainstreaming.
There, she might be found guilty without a trial and forcibly dosed with Centrille, a new wonder drug which brought on sweet oblivion, making life float by on smooth strokes of an oar.
It also deleted one’s mental profile permanently.
And so they met. They sat down and stared at the painting of the circles. They talked.
They toned down their clickers.
Bob monitored the gallery feed at the DSF and was a whiz at that kind of thing. He spent his time scooting around empty galleries on his Segway PT-1009 series, patrolling for art thieves who never came.
It was a job he found strangely exhilarating. In his best moments, he thought of himself as a composer, wending his way this way and that through bright paintings and sculptures and mixed-media productions.
Bob was not a tour guide, however, and certainly no art student—he just bounced along, from color to form to dissonance and back, like a big bumblebee in a sunny patch of clover.
Bob and Janey. Janey and Bob.
They began meeting when Janey was off work. The once-widely heralded architecture of this DSF facility, with its vast winding corridors and curlicues, comprised a strange and romantic setting after dark.
What do you want to do? Bob asked.
Everything! said Janey.
So they staged dinners in the sculpture garden and danced across the breezeways and made love like horny royals on the carpet beneath rich hanging tapestries.
They even dreamed of a life together off the grid.
So frightened were they of failing to be accounted for, however, that they got up every fifteen minutes or so to click Not Sure on the latest referendum.
In the dark ages before DEMOWEB, friend networks had become so vast that they threatened to freeze everyone’s system. You might worry if you hadn’t heard from that friend of yours in Denver or Minneapolis who ordinarily posted hourly updates, and start flooding their page. As a security measure to help direct the flow of virtual traffic, the government had installed a Regional Vigilance in twelve hubs around the country. It soon became public information to know who was online at all times, or if any voters out there were neglecting their patriotic duty to make their voices heard.
Each hub was eventually subsumed by Centerpol, a move to insure citizens wouldn’t trouble the government about every little thing. A predator in Mrs. Smith’s rose bushes or poorly bagged groceries might be cause for complaint, but didn’t need to trigger a voter initiative. On the other hand, if Mr. Smith suffered a stroke and was down for the count, the Emergency Messaging System would insure help was on the way. In a way, Centerpol was sort of a big friend to all.
And all said and done, those clickers truly were addictive. On the strength of peer-reviewed studies on chimpanzees, Centerpol deemed it impossible for most people to forbear from checking inboxes every seventeen-and-a-half minutes, give or take.
If the Responders at Centerpol didn’t hear from a person for a whole day, you could bet they would send out the cavalry.
It would have been hard for Janey to pinpoint just when she came up with the idea for the Big Showing.
She was now spending all (not virtually all) her spare time at the DSF, carrying on with Bob and examining paintings down to the last brushstroke. She began to reconstruct them in her mind’s eye.
At the DSF, she had become a new person, glowing like a saint.
At work, she tried to tone it down, but wielded her employee discount with increasing éclat, purchasing so many cans of paint she started receiving text messages and coupons for home redecoration from her own branch.
Those discount offers became bigger and bigger, as if luring her out to the edge of a consumer precipice.
Bob warned her to exercise caution. He had a justifiably modest opinion of his own intellect, but didn’t care to have anyone label him an Outlier and sauce him silly with any powerful drugs. Moreover, he didn’t want to erase the new feeling he felt for Janey.
He now cared for her completely.
And he followed her around dutifully, setting up palettes and drip trays and trying to keep everything covered in plastic.
Janey called him a Big Ol’ Worrywart. Bob countered, calling Janey Some Kind of Daredevil. They were in love, but she was also beginning to love something else, that feeling she got from totally losing herself in her work.
Swirls and splotches of color began to appear on the walls between paintings.
Despite Bob’s warnings, Janey kept buying more paint. She used phony IDs or rang up cans as damaged merchandise and smuggled them out of the store.
Bob, when tasked, collected velvet rope and wire out of storage. He also traveled for supplies to other DSFs, where he was waved to back rooms full of unused tools and electronics by apathetic guards who were clearly bored out of their skulls. They said, Just take all you want.
Bob knew tampering with the DEMOWEB network in any way was considered to be a truly seditious act, but by this point, Janey wasn’t listening.
The Big Showing was afoot!
Janey discovered a new sense of peace.
It was a feeling that didn’t always last very long, and which could be trailed by a little guilt. One didn’t spend one’s whole life on a social network without developing at least a little fellow-feeling for others.
She struggled hard to retain her focus, although Bob reminded her often enough that tampering with the DEMOWEB network in any way was considered a truly seditious act. All she wanted, after all, was to share her work with friends everywhere.
Perhaps then they could discover there was life off the grid, too.
Reluctantly, Bob set up his guy-wires and began powering up the DSF feed. The Big Showing was to be broadcast live.
He continued to grumble, warning Janey that those Vigilance troops didn’t play around.
Janey tuned him out.
The two worked side by side, often in total silence.
Bob had long ago assumed control of Janey’s clicker. These days she spent all of her time up a ladder with trays of paint, so lost in her own world she would have missed answering it even had it vibrated like Mount St. Helens.
By New Year’s Eve, the Big Showing was all set to go down.
At the eleventh hour, Bob worked out the remaining kinks with the live feed and mounted the DSF webcam on a golf cart.
He and Janey then embraced for a long, long time before settling in for a once-in-a-lifetime ride.
Let’s go, Janey said.
And so they were off.
It looked and felt like a space launch.
Soft ropes hung along corridors like cords of a suspension bridge leading outward and upward.
Janey’s bright borders trailed along the walls, then burst like comets.
An artwork appeared around each bend like a newly discovered star or planet.
The camera caught it all.
Fifteen seconds passed. Twenty.
Bob gave the golf cart a little more juice.
One minute. Two. Two and a half.
As it turns out, it was taking Centerpol Respondents a little longer to deal with hackers that night because several had been out celebrating New Year’s and were a little tipsy and unsure just what they were seeing.
A countdown, a ball-drop, then a sort of trippy trip through a strange universe of shape and color?
It was all kind of transfixing.
But eventually they shut down the feed.
The Vigilance troops, also groggier than usual, black helicoptered over from Jersey just minutes later.
You are surrounded, they announced.
Duh, thought Janey and Bob.
Surrender! the officer in charge commanded, just for effect.
Is that a carbine-action, five-kilo shot range laser rifle? Bob asked appreciatively.
Why, yes it is.
With Google compassing, and that thing that freezes time?
Janey looked a little bored.
Afterwards, Janey and Bob were flown straight to a mainstreaming facility near Tokeville.
The next morning when their case number came up, they weren’t interrogated or harassed.
Or even questioned very closely.
Instead they were escorted by Vigilance troops into a hospital waiting room.
Next in line, an elderly nurse barked.
Bob struggled, but it wasn’t really necessary to be conscious to be dosed with Centrille. So one of the troops clubbed him over the head when he tried to protect Janey. From then on, it was smooth sailing.
Janey didn’t resist at all. She was too busy composing another painting in her head, a beautiful work no one but her would ever see.
She felt a pinprick in her arm and then her mental picture broke apart in a kaleidoscopic swirl.
She looked down at Bob, who was snoring at her feet with a big dumb smile.
She felt herself start to slide out of her chair, saw the swell of Bob’s belly below, and smiled to herself because she knew it was going to be a soft landing.
And so they lived happily ever after.
M.V. Montgomery is a professor at Life University in Atlanta and the author of eight books. His fiction collection Beyond the Pale will be released by Winter Goose Publishing in May 2013. For further information, please visit his blog at: http://mvmontgomery.wordpress.com/