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True Enough Believers

Karl Lykken writes both stories and software in Texas. His short science fiction has appeared in The Chronos Chronicles, Theme of Absence, and The Flash Fiction Press.

I read the news. I didn't want to, but they'd see if I didn't. Then they'd find a new way to get to me.
The headline said United World Software's surveillance network had helped the government capture Deacon, the leader of the radical Luddite terrorists. I didn't know if it was true. I didn't even know if Deacon was a real person. If he was, I hoped he hadn't been caught.
I smiled anyway, all the way to my eyes. The cameras would see if I didn't. The algorithms would detect that I didn't believe the propaganda, and they'd learn from me and tweak their delivery until I really did believe. So I pretended.
"They got that backwards murderer Deacon," I announced to my wife. "Spotted him on the Safety Net."
She smiled. "That's great news. Thank God they're watching."
I didn't know if she meant it. I wondered sometimes, but I couldn't ask. There are microphones everywhere. Instead, I just chose to believe that she didn't.
I looked back at the article. It said Deacon had only evaded capture for so long by exploiting a bug in the auditory detection algorithms. He repeated everything he said twice, causing the algorithms to suspect there was a glitch in the feed. Thus, they would delete the feed instead of analyzing the voice and speech content. The article said it would be patched in a few weeks.
In a few weeks. Which would mean not yet. I stared at the article, wondering if this were true. If I really could talk to my wife.
I shook my head slightly, then caught myself and flipped to another article. I scanned over it, not really reading. The bug wasn't real. I was sure of it. They wouldn't announce a real bug that hadn't been patched yet. Besides, why would they delete the whole audio clip instead of just the duplicate part? It didn't figure. It was a trap, and God help me, I shook my head. What would they make of that?
I faked a yawn at the end of the new article, saving myself from having to guess whether I should appear uplifted or upset. I glanced over at my wife just as she looked up from her phone. She was shaking.
"We can talk freely if we repeat ourselves, Ravi. We can talk freely if we repeat ourselves, Ravi."
I wanted to hug her, and I wanted to cry. Most of all, I wanted to tell her everything. But I didn't. We couldn't talk. Not really. I forced my face into a look of confusion. "I always speak freely. Only terrorists fear the Safety Net."
She stopped shaking, her smile returning. "You passed the test."
I stared into her eyes, but I couldn't for the life of me tell if she meant it. I wondered if it really mattered.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 17th, 2018

Author Comments

That vast amounts of our personal data are collected, analyzed, and used to display individualized content designed to manipulate us isn't science fiction, and the push to make machine learning techniques more and more sophisticated will only increase the amount of influence the things we read and watch will have over us. Currently, I find this deeply troubling. In a few years, though, I might not.

- Karl Lykken
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