There Are No Absolutes

Submitted into Contest #150 in response to: Write a story where an algorithm plays an important role.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Speculative Horror

There Are No Absolutes

“Vehicle, take me to Zom-Zom’s.”

“Sir is aware that it is outside of the Metropolitan Control Authority?”

“Yes. Go.”

“Going sir.”

The public transportation Joe requested rolled freely into the street and away from his apartment building. The streets of the city’s center were usually empty this time of night so there would be little traffic to hinder his travel.

He made himself as comfortable as he could in the snug, single-passenger vehicle which smelled like drug-store perfume and bleach—a scent selected for its pleasant inoffensiveness.  It was the same scent used in all the public places.

Joe thought that a trip outside of the city, underneath the open skies, would calm his mind. He found himself repeatedly making his case to his boss; well, the image of his boss in his head, the one that could be reasoned with, the one who listened—the one who didn’t exist.

Tomorrow he had to explain why the project was late again and over budget. Joe couldn’t tell him that it was because the engineers he assigned to the team were incompetents—people the boss had hired because they were no threat to his own self-doubt.

“Vehicle, review my calendar. Begin with next Monday.” He wanted to look beyond the meeting, to a time when it would all be behind him. 

“But sir has a meeting marked important for tomorrow. Sir should start there, should he not?”

“Begin with Monday,” Joe barked.

“It’s your career. On Monday, sir has a dental cleaning at 2:30 PM.”

“Reschedule please.”

“There is an appointment available at 3 PM, Thursday two weeks from now.”

“Book it.”

“Sir has rescheduled this appointment twice already. Is sir sure?”

“Book it.”

“Well, sir knows what is best. Shall I continue with the calendar review?”

“Go on.”

“Sir has a grocery delivery scheduled for Tuesday.”

“Does it include bread? I forgot last time.”

“Yes, it does. Eye makeup is on sale, shall I place an order for sir?”

“Jesus Christ, that was for my wife, and I divorced her six years ago! It’s a matter of public record.”

“Sir does not desire scarlet eye shadow?”

“No.”

“Is sir sure? It is a charming color.”

Joe answered by slamming his fist into the side panel.

“Sir is sure.”

“Vehicle, what is the snark set at?”

“Snark is at eight, sir.”

“What the hell? What sort of moron rides around with snark at eight?”

“There are several types of morons, shall I name them so sir might select his?”

“No. Vehicle, put snark at zero, put all personality settings at zero, turn clinical all the way up to ten and read your new settings.”

Agreeable-0

Boisterous-0

Clinical-10

Debonair-0

“Vehicle, discontinue settings list.”

Content that he had quashed the snarky assistant, Joe leaned back into the headrest trying to let his neck muscles relax.

“Vehicle, recline to a prone position and turn on the overhead viewer. Give me the view outside, real-time, at a 1:1 ratio from my new perspective. No fisheye.”

He closed his eyes tightly in anticipation of the blinding flash that appeared when the viewer was switched on. This had been an issue with the view screens since their introduction, following the abolition of private transportation. Everyone winced before a vehicle’s viewer turned on.

Facing upward, Joe opened his eyes to find the image of the city gliding past as though he was reclining on a flying carpet. He gazed up through the valley of cold glass and steel into the blackness of the sky. The skyscrapers, which crowded out all but a small patch, seemed to peer down on him as he passed.

“Sir’s destination requires that we leave the Metropolitan Control Authority. A premium is charged for this service. Does sir agree?”

“I agree.”

“In accordance with the User Agreement I wish to inform sir that upon leaving the Metropolitan Control Authority, sir is agreeing to our hold-harmless liability waiver for accidental death, dismemberment…”

“Yes, yes. I agree to everything.”

The sky slowly opened up as he left the city center and entered the outskirts. Joe could feel his eyes relax as he let his gaze drift into the moonless sky.

Zom-Zom’s was a privately owned diner outside of the control authority. Calling it a diner was giving it more credit than it deserved. Zom-Zom’s was a place like it was built in one day. Its owner, silent as a grave, served only cold-cut sandwiches and slightly warmer coffee. The attraction of the place for Joe was that it was outside the surveillance of the authorities and far enough up in the hills to be free of the light pollution of the city’s core. It pleased him to sit at the diner’s only window, sipping instant coffee, contemplating the distance and isolation enjoyed by the stars.

“Sir is now leaving the Metropolitan Control Authority.”

Joe let the warning pass without a thought.

“Autonomous mode is now on.”

As the vehicle rose into the hills, he gently closed his eyes and attempted to control his breathing—deep breath in through the nose—hold—exhale through the mouth. He began counting the inhales backwards from ten. Ten—nine—eight—hold harmless—death—dismemberment. He gently shook his head and began again, but his mind kept turning back to the agreement. Exasperated, Joe sat up.

“Vehicle, raise me to a seated position.”

Outside of the control authority, especially during the New Moon, everything was steeped in darkness. Now that Joe was looking forward, only the road ahead, lit by a cone of light, was visible in the display. To Joe, the narrow, two-lane road seemed alive—a black snake with a yellow stripe twisting itself in front of him. Outside the scope of the single headlight were an incline of trees and large rocks on the left, and to the right a deepening precipice.

“Vehicle, why did I agree to hold you harmless against accidental death and dismemberment?”

“Sir agreed because it was required to reach his destination.”

“But I never had to agree to this before.”

“Since sir left the Metropolitan Control Authority last, the User Agreement has been updated.”

“Why did it change?”

“The People’s Committee for Collective Justice,” Joe gently shook his head in disgust, “has implemented a new algorithm designed to calculate emergency action while traveling in autonomous mode outside of the Metropolitan Control Authority”

“What is this algorithm designed to calculate exactly?”

“Based upon the analysis of 435 factors, occupants of vehicles outside of the Metropolitan Control Authority are assigned a Social Meaningfulness Score. In the case of an imminent collision, the vehicle occupied by the citizen with the least Social Meaningfulness Score is required to swerve.”

“Required to swerve?”, he thought and then asked, “Why did they change it?”

“Sir, The People’s Committee for Collective Justice determined that the former safety algorithm failed to sufficiently enhance the public good.”

Joe considered this idea for a moment and its implications. “Vehicle, what is my Social Meaningfulness Score?”

“Sir’s score is calculated based upon 435 factors at the time he leaves the Metropolitan Control Authority.”

“I didn’t ask you when it was calculated. I’m asking what my score is.”

“Sir’s score suffices to ensure safe travel while outside of the Metropolitan Control Authority.”

“Who are you to decide what is safe for me to engage in?”

“Sir, The People’s Committee for Collective Justice has nothing but its citizen’s best interest at heart.”

“How thoughtful of them.”

“Sir’s blood pressure is becoming elevated. Would sir like to view some relaxing kitten videos?” 

“No. Vehicle, do you know my Social Meaningfulness Score?”

“Of course sir.”

“Am I entitled to know this score?”

“The People’s Committee for Collective Justice has provided for two conditions under which sir’s Social Meaningfulness Score may be revealed.”

“What are those conditions?”

“Sir may schedule a Citizen’s Request for Information hearing with The People’s Committee for Public Privacy. Shall I make an appointment for sir with a clerk at the Kafka Administration Building?”

A hopeless endeavor, he thought. “What is the other condition?”

“In the case that sir’s vehicle is compelled to swerve while in autonomous mode and this swerve results in death, sir’s Social Meaningfulness Score becomes public knowledge.”

“Well, as if that does me any good. Can I change or improve my score?”

“As sir knows, everyone could use some brushing up. Perhaps sir would like to attend an Every Citizen’s Duty refresher course at the People’s Education Center?”

Joe dismissed the suggestion knowing, from experience, that even refresher courses can result in lengthy stays in a re-education pod. “No, that won’t be necessary. Is there any other way to increase my score?”

“There are no absolutes, sir.”

“What?”

“Sir, there are no absolutes.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Sir, the phrase is a common expression that truth is relative and unfixed. This is a widely accepted concept in philosophy. Shall I provide sir with references?”

“So you’re saying that my Social Meaningfulness Score has no meaning?”

“Will sir please restate his query?”

“If your 435 factors are measurable facts then they have a relationship to reality independent of what anyone thinks. They are objective. But, if there are no absolutes and truth is relative then the score is whatever anyone says it is. It is subjective.”

“Sir’s blood pressure and heart rate are becoming quite elevated. I will make an appointment with sir’s doctor for a check-up.”

“Cancel that appointment. You know, it occurs to me that the phrase “There are no absolutes” is itself an absolute. It’s self-contradictory.”

“Sir is quite clever.”

“I find it interesting that I have no way of knowing what my meaningfulness score is and even if I did, it has no damned meaning anyway.”

“Oh dear, it seems sir is quite agitated. I will schedule an appointment with a social engineer to deal with these undesirable thoughts.”

As Joe was formulating his reply, a white-tail deer bounded into the road ahead. The vehicle promptly swerved over the precipice and into the abyss to avoid colliding with it.

“Why did you swerve?” Joe screamed in his last seconds.

“Endangered species score an automatic 50; sir’s score is only 42.”

June 10, 2022 15:32

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2 comments

Chris Morris
09:11 Jun 18, 2022

What a ride this story was! So brilliantly written. It was equally intriguing, engaging, tense, horrific, thought-provoking and even funny. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, thank you for writing it.

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Joseph Cheff
18:38 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.

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