“Sorry about the tea. I know it’s weak.” Marnie hustled among the dozen or so people, handing out plastic cups. “I’ve relied on my SmartKettle so long now that I’ve forgotten how to make it properly.”
A few nodded and smiled.
“I thought we could go around the room and introduce ourselves and just say why we’re here.” She said. “I’ll start. I’m Marnie, and I’m the one who put up those signs. I’m glad you could all solve my little puzzle. I didn’t want to make it too hard, but didn’t want Surveillance to realize there was a puzzle at all. Let’s hope they didn’t.” She laughed. No one else did.
She looked down at a young man sitting close to her and he took the cue. “Uh, I’m Dan. I liked the puzzle. It was fun.” He looked up at Marnie and smiled. “I guess I’m here because of those posters on the trains from a few weeks ago, the ones saying we had to keep our phones on at all times.” A few others nodded. “I mean. I was frustrated before, but that’s just too much: ‘For Security, All Citizens Must Keep Phones on at All Times’ – what the hell is that? That makes me nervous. I don’t want to be afraid of my government. I want my government to be afraid of me.”
A few others hummed agreement but then the old man interrupted. “You don’t want the government to be afraid of you. The government used to be afraid of people from the Middle East. Look what happened to them. They used to be afraid of people who owned guns. Look what happened to them. They used to be afraid of people with chronic disease. Look what…”
“I know. I know.” A young woman interrupted. “But that was all for the best, wasn’t it? I mean, crime is so far down compared to the old days, right? People aren’t dying from violence or deadly disease now, at least not much. I’m Angela by the way.” She gave a little wave. “I just don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This AI they’re using has done a lot of good.”
The others didn’t react other than to look to the old man for a rebuttal. “You’re not entirely wrong… but you’re missing some context. And perhaps we’re left with a choice. I’m Albert.” He paused. “I see I’m the oldest person here, by quite a lot. I remember what life was like. And I know you don’t want to hear me be wistful for the old days. I didn’t like hearing about that when I was young. But… do any of you remember when you could stop at an intersection and not have your photo taken?”
A few shook their heads.
“Or… remember when children didn’t have to get fingerprinted to go to school? I remember when phones didn’t have cameras and microphones tracking us at all times!”
They shook their heads again.
“We were free then. At least more free than now.”
Another young man spoke up. “I agree with Angela. I’m Martin, by the way. I think we all understand that security and safety comes at some cost and life isn’t how it used to be, some ways better and maybe some ways not quite as good. But there must be some middle ground. This AI the government is using now has done a lot of good but now has too much power.”
The group continued discussing, with some arguing for total destruction of the AI and others for a more moderate approach.
After a bit less than an hour Marnie stood and said, “I think we all have places to be and Surveillance may get suspicious if we’re all in here much longer.”
She began cleaning up the cups and tea. “Need some help?” Martin asked.
“No, thanks.” She smiled. “I’ll stay behind until everyone else has gone.”
The others stood and queued at the door and began leaving, each waiting until the previous person had climbed the steep path away from the water’s edge before leaving.
At the mext meeting, Albert spoke first. “I just want to start by saying it’s very dangerous to be meeting in the same place twice. We should have moved to a different spot and we definitely need a new one for next time.”
Marnie answered. “Do you have a place in mind? It’s hard to find secure locations.”
“It just seems like common sense to me.”
“Well, maybe it’s uncommon sense since it didn’t occur to me.”
The conversation picked up where it had ended last time and Albert was soon telling stories about the old days again. When Angela began looking bored, he said, “My dad was at the company that first designed this AI, you know.”
“Wait,” Dan said, “He was one of the bad guys?”
“What? No, not at all. When he was at Master Intelligence, they were working with the FBI and DMV, working on facial recognition to help catch criminals, and then they built the M.I.H. that handled resource allocation during disasters. Remember that viral epidemic from way back? You must have been kids. It was M.I.H. that allowed hospitals to keep the generators running and supplies moving. M.I.H. hospitals had a death rate of less than 80%. And that’s when local governments decided to use the software for all, well, most, of their decision making.”
“This doesn’t sound so bad.” Angela said.
“And we’ve heard this before.” Martin replied.
Albert then smiled and leaned closer. “But what they don’t tell you… Is that the AI is what designed the virus in the first place.”
Angela and the others leaned back, smirking. “Come on.”
“I swear.” Albert continued. “The company had the AI analyze all data from the census, NIH, FBI, and everything else. They were asking the system what the biggest threat to safety and security was…”
“And? Was what?”
“Overpopulation. No matter how they ran the data, the answer was always the same. Well, the staff buried the report, but the AI didn’t forget, and it took on a new mission, to cull the population, starting with those most detrimental to a peaceful society.”
Everyone sat quietly until Dan spoke up. “Now Al, I’m one of your supporters here, but even that seems a bit far-fetched.”
“Yeah,” asked Angela. “Do you have any proof?”
Albert smiled. “What if I said I did?”
The group waited for a moment until Angela said, “Well?”
“Not here.” Akbert answered. “Not now.”
Everyone groaned and began talking about other things.
Marnie excused herself to use the bathroom. After closing the door, she pulled out her phone. “Did you get all that?”
A voice answered, “Yeah.”
“Are you going to send that in?”
“Yeah. You ready, or do you want to get more?”
“I’m ready. We have one for sure. The older man, Albert.”
“He’s on the list. Hell, he’s been on the list for 40 years. We have the drones in the air now. You going to need boots and arms?”
“No. I don’t think so. This is a pretty quiet group. You can send them to the door. They can do flyovers as we take them to the vans.”
Marnie walked back in the room and listened to the conversation before checking the front door, then turning to the group with her hand on the holster on her hip.
“Attention! I’m sorry. I really am. I mean really, really sorry. My name really is Marnie, but I am a special agent with the National Office of Loyalty and Security. You are all under suspicion for the act of sedition. You are all going to have to come with me for questioning. These meetings have been recorded.”
Everyone sat up, mouths open.
“We have drones outside who will escort you to the trucks we have waiting.”
No one moved.
“Again, I’m really very sorry. If you cooperate, you won’t necessarily be formally arrested. And remember, arrest doesn’t necessarily mean conviction. Some of you will be fine.”
Angela, Martin, and a few others stood.
Marnie looked at her watch. “Come on. In five seconds you’ll be resisting arrest.”
Everyone but Dan and Albert stood and began walking slowly out the door.
Marnie looked at them. “Dan? You still have a chance.”
“A chance for what?” He looked at Albert, who smiled again.
“You had me fooled.” Albert said. “You did. I had suspicions. I should have trusted my instincts.” He remained in his chair. “You’re going to have to come get me.”
Marnie sighed. She looked at Dan. “Dan. Go. Now.” He slowly stepped toward the door, watching Marnie and Albert.
Marnie sat down. “Albert, here’s what’s going to happen. We have…”
Albert jumped up, threw a chair at Marnie, ran to the back window, which Marnie now saw was open. He jumped through as she ran after him. When she got to the window she saw him climb into a boat, start the engine and speed out into the lake.
She had her phone out. “Did you catch that? We’ve got a live one.”