Life Unexpected

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


Fiction Science Fiction

Jean looked up as the sound barrier was breached, announcing the departure of the ship. Her vision was blurred through the small glass window of her mask set to the tune of her own breathing. She could barely see the fiery tail by the time she moved her head toward the sound and lined up the two by three-inch field of vision to the fading spot in the sky.

“That was the last of them” she scrolled on her handheld to her husband who was over the ridge skinning a deer and testing for radiation levels before filleting, treating the best parts with the neutralizing solution. This had been their life for many years now. At first, there were exits every few days from every country, transporting the wealthy who were searching for any unexplored place where water was clean, and the air was not toxic. In their arrogant perspective, the planet was beyond any hope of continued existence without their direction and guidance. 

The device buzzes and she looked down. “Thank God. I heard they were having issues with take-off and going to delay again.”

Jean clicked out “I am sure they will be back for us soon” and laughed as she hit send. 

It was always the same parting speech about their faith in the new technology to extend the inevitable extinction of humans and promising to rescue the remaining population when they found something more inhabitable. For Jean and Joseph, the more convinced they were that humans were going to be extinct in a few years, the less chance they would ever venture back and destroy it again. Never again, especially now that the Federation model was working so well.

Jean and Joseph spent the last decade as the top two scientists of Viability Technologies before it was dismantled. Over those years, Joseph rose to prominence by creating technology that connected communications throughout the world. Jean’s rise to fame was quantifying and predicting the remaining supply of natural resources. Together they made up the two halves of JJ Predictors. After the Great War of 2045, they spent the last five years designing the first world order algorithm to manage the remaining natural resources that were not destroyed. The project had expanded over time to include a worldwide communications platform that became the primary tool for communications and decision making across the dwindling population of humans on the planet.

After seeing the last glimmer of bright light disappear, Jean joined Joseph and they made their way silently to their humble dwelling. Home consisted of three buildings encased in hardened walls of concrete, 15 feet thick, one building dedicated to their servers and the other two for air quality experimentation doubling as a shelter when needed. One air duct connected each to the next and one small tube filled their one-bedroom structure with breathable air. One window faced the North, where the most dangerous storms would appear on the horizon allowing them time to move to the shelter. The structure had five separate entryway sections each designed to cleanse specific particles of radiation from their clothing with each pass through.

As they reached the final door, heat blasted through the final door telling them that they were safe and inside. Jean placed her breathing gear on its usual hook as Joseph sealed the door for the third time that day.

“Where was that one going?” Jean turned toward the sound of Joseph’s voice. She was still surprised by it after suffering through two long years, never hearing another human voice and the constant rhythmic sound of her own lungs in and out through the respirator.

“Who cares as long as they are gone”. Liberation was clear in her voice.

JJ Technologies took control of all natural resources after the unanimous Federation vote at the end of the Great War, essentially stripping world leaders of control. At first, they were desperate to maintain their supremacy as the richest and therefore, most powerful. There were plenty of useless but blatant attempts to commandeer the technology but over time they finally gave up and set out for new worlds to decimate, leaving the rest of them to perish. Out of habit, Jean opened the page and surveyed the entirely impractical world bank account for large deposits. She shook her head at the absurdity of it all; the first time and then many times afterwards, billionaires deposited millions of dollars to the account. Someone forgot to tell the rich and famous that their money had no value in the post-war era. While the attempted bribery had no significant impact, it was a sufficient reason to refuse federation membership which allowed their progress to go undetected —in hopes that they saw no need to return.

Jean’s device buzzed again. 

“We have another update on the water reserve. It looks like it’s building nicely. Did you ever think we would be this far ahead at this point?”

A smile broke across Joseph’s face, showing the warm expression of love Jean had fallen for so many years ago. He kissed Jean on the forehead as he snuck by her to the small seating section of their living room.

“At this rate, everyone will be back to pre-war water availability in a year. Well ahead of schedule. When is the next federation update? They will be so thrilled.” 

Jean checked the calendar on her device. “Next week is the vote for the new air purifiers. We can update them on the water builds then. Our response rate has increased to 95.8%.” 

Joseph opened his laptop and checked the map of towers being built in South America. 

“With the last of the towers going up, we should be at a hundred percent soon. I can’t wait.” 

The decentralized voting system was a monumental effort to unify the remaining 1.7 billion people in support of the algorithm, the success of which depended entirely on collective participation. Dangerous air quality forced everyone into their respirators and word of mouth was agonizingly slow in convincing the masses that the algorithm and essentially Jean and Joseph could be trusted. Once the former leaders of the world started heading out to other planets that may or may not sustain life, the dwindling left-over population had finally adopted the common goal. Restoration.

“The new air purifiers will be in production within the week assuming the vote comes in for it. But the dissenters had a great debate going on yesterday.” As she was reviewing the transcripts from yesterday’s spirited meeting. For the resource decision, the algorithm selected the top experts from infrastructure and environmental as appointed “dissenters” to weigh in on the subject and educate everyone on the different sides. “They really are taking their role seriously. The arguments were excellent. Air purifiers are essential to resuming some type of normalcy within the home.”

Joseph chimes in “Not to mention increasing the birth rates.” One might assume he was engaged in the conversation, but the sound of his voice suggested otherwise.

Jean let her camisole slide off one shoulder. She saw his eyes move down her exposed skin. “Some people are still not able to remove the masks indoors. But the tower project argument was also interesting since it could close the gap on the final connections even faster.” Jean was instantly transported back in time to the first time she and Joseph were confident enough to remove the masks. The first kiss rekindling the passion that has yet to subside. Jean interrupted the palpable tension turning toward the deer’s hind quarters trying to make fast work of packaging it for the deep freeze, playfully humming “Baby Got Back” swaying her hips with to the imagined drumbeat.

“I can’t imagine not hearing you sing everyday even if you have a questionable repertoire of the classics.” Jean let out a small laugh but remained laser focused on the task to avoid cutting herself with the freshly sharpened knife. Joseph crossed the room and removed the blade from her hand. “About those birth rates…” he said in a low and breathy voice into the most sensitive part on the back of her neck. Jean answered him back, pressing into him. “If at first you don’t succeed...” his voice trailed off as they finished what she started.

The restoration was dependent upon birth rates out pacing the death rate and while improving, the algorithm continued to bleakly predict human extinction based on low probabilities of repopulation. There were a handful of pregnancies and even some healthy births but Jean and Joseph’s prospects of child, as well as most other humans, were calculated at next to zero. Many people had given up on the idea of children in lieu of tirelessly working to delay the inevitable. Besides their deep desire to have children, Jean and Joseph believed an announcement of a child could go a long way in motivating people to remain hopeful. And being intimate without the cumbersome respirators was not just a passing attempt at humor.

Jean and Joseph lay quietly by candlelight peacefully enjoying the sounds of each other’s breathing which had slowed considerably over the last 30 minutes. She held off telling him about the secret after many disappointments in the past, seeing the pain on Joseph’s face was too much to bear again. Most unsuccessful pregnancies happened within the first few months. But this tender moment seemed so right, and Jean was optimistic. She turned to Joseph, “I’m pregnant”.

Delight and fear passed through his expressions before he could gain control. His reaction, he knew, was critical. Joy will certainly add to the disappointment if this ends like it did last year. Fear would remind Jean of the many failures they had experienced before. “How many weeks?” suppressing the smile that was winning the war of his emotions. “15 weeks, Joseph.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he allowed himself to be blissfully happy for this moment. He wrapped his fingers with Jean’s as images flashed of their child as if he or she had always been part of their little family.

Jean and Joseph decided to announce their exciting news on the next federation call. A flurry of excited responses nearly overwhelmed the system. Within the next week, tens of thousands of people began reporting pregnancies, and many were past the danger zone of the first trimester. Jean and Joseph hardly had a moment to absorb this developing situation while working around the clock collecting the data, demographics and entering them into the algorithm.  

“What are the new predictions?” He was looking over Jean’s shoulder while she entered the newest data. Jean hit the last five keystrokes with so much excitement, Joseph thought she would break the keyboard. 

“Accelerated seven more points in sustainability factors in the last two weeks. Can you believe it?” Joseph didn’t need to respond; it wasn’t a question. Instead, he was fixated entirely on the screens as if they would suddenly relapse to the numbers from the past, “Last month, we were looking at a possible one point per year and even that would have only moved extinction out a year or two under the best conditions. What are we missing here?” 

Jean stared at the same screen mirroring Joseph’s exact expression. “I would have said it was an error in the algorithm. But this isn’t a predictor estimate. These are real inputs. We confirmed every one of them.” He nodded, “I mean a lot of them probably wouldn’t have reported yet, but your announcement definitely prompted them to speak up earlier than normal. Even adjusting for this, we would have eventually seen the numbers jump well beyond the model’s possible outcomes.” 

Jean had been scrubbing the code for any missing variables since the initial surge of announcements. “I was thinking the SuperK solution had an accelerated clearing of our radiation, but we took those treatments years ago. Surely, we would have picked up on the trend earlier.”

Joseph tried an environmental approach, “Maybe the water source increases had an effect?” Jane shook her head, “We already factored that in last year when we realized it was ahead of schedule.” Both agreed that whatever the reason, with the current model, births would surpass deaths in a matter of months rather than years and at this rate, birth rates were on pace to match pre-war rates within two years. 

As the months passed the number of new announcements remained steady, so much so that Jean had to build in a way for everyone to report directly to the algorithm. She knew it would make the algorithm prone to input errors, but they would not be able to physically keep up with the inputs every day like they did in the first weeks. The manual process was put to a vote with the predicted margins of error and the Federation unanimously approved the change within a few hours after the close of the debate.

As the subject matter expert on the algorithm, Jean was the obvious choice as a dissenter. Jean was adamant they could keep up with the work and was reluctant to risk bad inputs. But as a matter of integrity, she argued to make the change, having the expertise to argue both sides, to avoid any unfair advantage of her opinion in the debate. 

She argued for the change using the entire maximum time limit, ending by saying, “the risk of human error now is similar to the new manual process margin of error once you factor in fatigue and our time would be better spent finding the key variables attributable to the recent trend.”

Since that day, the algorithm continued to update the models using manual inputs from all over the planet. Meanwhile, Jean and Joseph had eliminated an exhaustive list of all possible known variables. 

“The only thing left to do is start interviewing people. Maybe we can find a common factor we haven’t thought about already.” Joseph knew this would be tedious work but with the final towers in operation, the interviews would be at least feasible. “We can use the algorithm to sample the clusters and go from there.”

Joseph’s quick work at methodology reminded Jean she was not in this alone. “That will work. I can build an old school Boolean script to search all the verbatim interview responses and see what themes show up.”

A month later, Jean and Joseph fed the last of the interview data into the algorithm. Several days went by as the archaic system scanned through 100,000 terabytes of data. “This is taking so long.” Joseph said under his breath as he checked the completion percentage for the 10th time in the last two hours. “The old process was not built to mine this much data. This was created when data storage was limited to 20 terabytes at the most. It also needs to simultaneously translate every linguistic phrase and word and all possible interpretations. I think we have a few more days of this. Be patient, my dear.”

Somewhere in the middle of the next night, the algorithm notified Jean and Joseph that the work was complete, and the results were compiled with a barely audible "beep". Jean and Joseph rushed the three feet from their bed to the computer and now stood in front of the screen as it slowly rolled out the common word analysis. They were expecting words related to food intake, average days of solitude, activities, respirator usage, and a host of other micro level differences in the way people live their lives.

“What does this mean? I don’t understand.” moving closer to the screen as if her 20/20 eyesight would be more accurate at closer range. Joseph stood next to her waiting, expecting her brilliant mind to explain what they were seeing.

“The graphs clearly found commonalities of the interviews, but I still don’t understand how…” Jean could never finish a sentence when her mind was in overdrive. As the screen shifted from the colorful scatter plot graphs to the waterfall depiction of the most repeated word in order of frequency, there was no mistaking the four letters at the top. LIFE. The next word. HOPE. The next word. TOGETHER. One after another, words that looked more like a greeting card word generator of positive emotions rather than a deep scientific analysis. Jean and Joseph reached their understanding of the data almost simultaneously. The algorithm had gone as far as it could go in this human experiment, giving infinite calculations of natural resources, air quality, food sources and many more organic ways to eke out a fraction more time —to sustain life just a little longer. But to Jean and Joseph, their life’s work failed in the most beautiful way possible, unable to factor in the intangible resilience of collective masses and the incredible power of a society desperate for a future.

June 16, 2022 05:25

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