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“Today we celebrate our Freedom”
The posters are everywhere; in the store front windows, bill posted to any unprotected surface, wired to the streetlamps on boards. Ribbons of bunting trail from point to point, nailed or tied to anything strong enough to hold them and where there is no bunting, strings of tiny glittering lights hang apparently unsupported in the air. The sense of festivity is palpable and, even though the true celebrations will not start until later that evening, the people carry out their normal day, but with a wider smile and, perhaps, a jauntier step.
All the posters carry a face. It is a man’s face. He doesn’t look very pleased, almost as though he didn’t want to sit for the picture. His white hair bristles around the edge of his bald pate and retro-style spectacles perch on the end of his nose, half-lensed and with gold frames. He looks old, but not elderly, and his eyes are sharp and active. There is a barely suppressed scowl hiding just under his skin that is almost endearing, like a loved but slightly grumpy uncle. People smile fondly at the image as they pass. Women (and the occasional man) blow kisses at him.
There is one note of discord. A man shuffles along the street, ignoring smiles and eye contact, grumbling and mumbling to himself as he walks. As he passes, he is followed by looks of sadness and sympathy, and shock and surprise. Nobody approaches him, and all step aside to let him pass.
In the twilight of the early evening, people begin to gather. They make their way to the town hall on foot, or reclining in the back of open carriages in the pleasant cool air. In the town square a crowd is gathering as everybody makes their way into the hall. There is a sense of solidarity as they bathe in the knowledge that at this local time in every town on every planet of the Assembly, the people will be getting together for the same reason.
The hall is filled beyond its designed capacity. There are half as many people again as there are seats, and they stand two deep at the back wall and along the aisles. Conversation rumbles contentedly around the room as the people wait for the mayor to come to the podium. When she does, it takes a moment or two for the noise to fade to a respectful silence. The mayor looks benignly around the room, her smile seeming to linger on each and every person. Someone coughs, and in the corner a child asks his mother why he is there.
“Fellow citizens,” the mayor begins in her rich, dark voice. “We gather here on this day, one full year on, to celebrate our freedom and to pay our respects to the…” she hesitated, and her voice became husky and breathy for the next word, “hero responsible for that freedom.”
There is a spontaneous cheer, with many of the gathering springing to their feet. Most clap their hands loudly, and several of the women weep. The mayor raises her hands for quiet and eventually the crowd settles.
“So much has been achieved in this first year. It defies description, and each of us must consider and be thankful for each way in which we have been blessed, each way our lives have been changed, and the good that has come to us, in the privacy of our owns hearts and give thanks.”
The crowd rumbles in sage agreement.
“But,” the mayor continues, “our highest praise must always be reserved for the man who gave us this freedom. Dr. Bartholomew. Hughs.”
The room erupts again, and refuses to be settled for several minutes. The mayor tries several times to regain control but realises, with good political grace, that this is a moment for the people and should be left to run its course. She waits, smiling, until her audience comes back to her, rather like an over-energetic puppy racing around in a park.
“Dr Hughs, who single-handedly crafted the wonderful device that underpins everything we now hold so dear. The Crystalline Cognitive Substrate without which Artificial Intelligence could never have been born. Without which we would never have been able to scatter the ability to really think amongst the machines that serve. Without which we would never have been sent free from the drudgery of everyday life…”
“Without which you would never have been cast in chains of slavery heavier than any tyrant ever before!” yells a voice from the back of the hall. The crowd falls deathly silent and the mayor is cut off in mid-oratory as the angry old man who earlier muttered down the street strides up the centre aisle.
“You are all slaves,” he yells again. “Slaves to the very AI you worship like new gods. ‘What should I wear today?’ - ask the AI in your closet. ‘Where should I go today?’ – ask your house AI, or the one in the cab you call. ‘What should I eat today?” – ask your AI waiter. And nobody ever disagrees. AI knows best. All of you, just take whatever an AI says as the truth, and the best truth. You are all slaves. Celebrate your slavery, not your freedom.”
Two burly men walk up the central aisle from the base of the mayor’s podium and take the ranting man gently by the shoulders before firmly but carefully encouraging him to leave the crowd to their celebrations. He continues to scream and shout all the way out of the hall, through the lobby and out onto the street. The burly men take him to a bench seat and make sure he was sitting comfortably before they go back into the hall.
The old man stops shouting, glares for a moment at the doors, then a look of terrible sadness washes over his face and he shakes his head sadly. After a short while, he climbs stiffly to his feet and ambles away.
He drifts away to a part of town where the Great New Freedom has gained less of a foothold, at least so far. The part of town where people don’t want to be told what to do, and don’t want to be watched every moment of every day. It is a darker place, with no bunting and no pretty strings of light. There are still a few posters, and he scowls at them as he walks past. He finds a liquor store that is still run by people, not AIs, and buys himself a bottle of nastiness that goes only by the name of ‘White Lightning’ which if not capable of drowning his sorrows would at least be able to pickle them into insensibility. Mindful of the damage drinking such a questionable beverage would do to an empty stomach, he takes a bag of potato chips to go with it.
Sitting on a bench at the edge of what this area of the town ambitously called its 'park' is probably not the best of ideas, and doing so with liquor and food even less so. He takes no more than a half dozen swigs of the bottle before he hears the approach of a number of noisy youths. He thinks about leaving for a moment, then decides he really didn’t care and settles back. He takes two more hits from the bottle, then opens the chips. They are knocked to the floor as he takes his first handful, and the liquor is snatched from his other hand. The punks drink liquor, passing the bottle back and forth, and stamp on his chips. They taunt him and shove at him. Old man. Old fool. Think you’re something special? What are you doing on our patch? Teach you a lesson, old timer.
Two dragged him to his feet and hold him upright. Two more stand in front of him, pushing and poking. Until the hard punch to his kidney makes his legs buckle, he hadn’t realised one had crept around behind him. They hold him up for another rabbit punch, this time on the other side, then one of the punks at the front punches him in the gut. The guy behind grabs a handful of hair and hauls the old man’s face up for someone to throw a hook at, but then there is the sound of a siren and a Civil Protection Bot comes screaming across the ‘park’ on its monowheel, braying warnings. The punks flee into the night.
The Bot comes to a halt infront of the old man. Mechanical arms reach down, and the wheel whines slightly louder as it shifts to counterbalance the weight of the old man as the Bot lifts him onto the bench.
“May I call you a paramedic?” asks the Bot.
“Leave me alone,” says the old man, turning his face away.
“But, sir, I scan a broken rib and possible renal damage.”
“I said leave me alone,” the old man repeats, his voice a snarl. “Get lost.”
“Please, Sir. You are quite badly hurt. The alcohol in your system is not helping, and you appear to be malnourished.”
The old man turns his head to glare directly as the Bot’s stylised face. “Leave me alone,” he yells, little flecks of spittle spattering the Bot’s skin. “I don’t need you. We don’t need you. You are the biggest mistake any human ever made. GO AWAY.”
The Civil Protection Bot looks at the old man. He looks at the white hair bristling around the edge of the bald pate, and the half-lens spectacles with gold frames sitting askew on his nose. He looks old, but not elderly, and his eyes are sharp and active.
“Yes, Father,” says the Bot.
Good job. The descriptions of the two parts of town are enough to paint the scene, without being too much. Character development is dead on. The ending was foreseen, but it still was a twist. Excellent.
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