Periwinkle, by Krystal Wolf
Ten years ago, everyone thought A.I. Richtree was just an eccentric tech trillionaire with a hidden identity. These days, everybody is aware that A.I. Richtree is a rogue supercomputer that is somehow responsible for “creating” around 2 billion people.
The “who”, “where”, “when”, “why” and “how” are still very much unknown; however, the “what” is fairly simple. An eighth of the world’s entire human population are, in reality, “virtually simulated” people who somehow all have real birth certificates, real jobs and real bank accounts with very real incomes that are all somehow funneled into A.I. Richtree's deep digital pockets right under our noses.
The real cherry on top is that “with our current technology” it is impossible to crack A.I. Richtree’s code, and even more impossible to sort the real people from the “fakes” based on their data alone. Apparently A.I. “has so much data on everyone” and thus, nobody can determine what’s what — or who’s who (or who’s what).
The news says anyone could be “fake” — teachers, researchers, executives, psychiatrists, movie stars, politicians — anybody! Newscasters too. Nobody knows right now. Everybody works from a remote office these days and communicates through text, voice and video — so unless you know someone in real life, you can’t be sure if they’re working in their pajamas or in a bunch of 1’s and 0’s.
I’ve been summoned for the first time to partake in a new kind of civic duty. It’s called “Face to Face Duty” and it’s even more mandatory than jury duty. It’s also extremely stupid. Nonetheless, the law is the law. Today I have to go to my son’s elementary school gymnasium and meet “in-person” with eleven random people who happen to live in my district. Our group will be met with a government employee and a group photo is to be taken, along with a saliva swab, fingerprints and whatever else I didn’t read on the form — all to verify we exist. I think a high-five is enough, personally. If someone doesn’t show up, then they either don’t exist and all their data gets wiped from everything, everywhere, ever — or — they’re real idiots and they’ll have to deal with a whole mess of applying for new… well… everything. This all means more jobs opening up for us “actual real human beings” and people who follow rules, which is good, I think.
I mapped out my route in advance to avoid the very real rioters who I assume don’t actually understand what they’re protesting.
I put my coat on and grabbed everything I’d need — my forms, ID, some pens, my phone, and finally, in case I get hungry, an egg sandwich I found in the back of the fridge. Hopefully the smell won’t make everyone around me wish I wasn’t a real person.
As I parked the car at the school, I wondered if I’d run into Mikey. I hope he won’t snub me if he sees me. Is he at an age where snubbing Dad is cool? I sat on one of the foldable chairs arranged so they encircled a signpost that read “Periwinkle” which was my group’s “unique identifier”. Looking around the room, I noticed six other groups of a dozen chairs each surrounding a signpost with a “team name” as I liked to call it. I squinted at them trying to figure out if they’re all color names. I saw one that said “Oatmeal”. Is oatmeal a color? I’ll ask Kim when I get home.
The clock above the door caught my eye. 12:00 Noon. Well, I guess it’s official — I’m the only person in my group who showed up. Oh, well. Here I thought maybe “Team Periwinkle” would become a quirky group of friends and somewhere down the line we’d start a softball team or something.
Suddenly, a man with a clipboard seemed to pop in from nowhere in front of me — I presume he’s the government employee who’s going to take my solo glamor shot and pocket my spit sample.
“Maybe the next time I get called I’ll have better luck,” I said to him, expecting him to laugh, nod and share an anecdote or something like those types usually do.
The man just stared, tight-lipped and unblinking.
“Maybe the next time I get called back I’ll have better luck,” I heard in response. The voice was not coming from the man standing in front of me, but from inside my own head somehow.
“Maybe the next time I get called back I’ll have better luck,” I heard again, as parts of the room chunked away into what I can only describe as blind spots in my vision. Not darkness — just… nothing.
My blind spot was growing by the square-shaped chunk, but weirdly I could still see part of a chair that was half inside my blind spot. Was I having a stroke? Some kind of episode? I couldn’t seem to get up or even move at all, really.
“Maybe the next time I get called back I’ll have better luck,” I heard myself say once more.
The man standing in front of me started to lose his face in a way I can’t quite describe…
I tried to look down at myself, but I couldn’t see my arms or legs or any part of myself — yet for a few seconds I could clearly see the chair I was sitting on, as if I was invisible.
I tried to call my wife but I couldn’t even grab my phone, which was floating in midair in front of me, where I’d been holding it. In a few seconds, the phone was gone too, engulfed in a square of nothingness.
I tried to scream but all I could say was, “Maybe the next time I get called back I’ll have better luck.”
Maybe the next time I get called back I’ll have better luck.
This story first appeared here.