(reading time: 22 minutes)
Over two hundred students were ushered into the atrium of the Pascal Higher Institute of Mathematics, which was composed of a huge, blue, glass dome held in place by a latticework of metal bars. Sunlight shone in through a hole at the top, bypassing a spinning frame in order to cast the shadow of a shifting tesseract on the floor below.
If the schedule had included the usual dry lecture students would’ve just trickled in, but today they flooded through the doors. Each one held a cheap plastic-shelled tablet in their hands, some having already managed to get smears of lotion or potato chip grease on the screen even though it had only been issued to them five minutes ago. With no professor trying to group them like a weak demigod trying to part a sea, the students formed their own units of five or six and either found seats at the many tables or leaned up against the glass sides of the chamber.
Every student present was at least eighteen years old, as that was the minimum legal age to vote. All the other pupils who hadn’t yet attained the lofty age were busy eating in the cafeteria, swimming in the university’s infinity pools, or burying their noses in books and holotomes from the library.
Moana was one of the last to enter. Her uniform was spotless and freer of wrinkles than mannequin skin; the tablet clutched in her arms was also pristine. She wandered over to a pocket of acquaintances and listened in on their conversation.
“I’ll make him blond,” one girl said as she scribbled away on her tablet with a stylus. “He needs to surround himself with happy colors. It’ll promote positivity in everyone who sees him.”
“Why are you making them a man?” another girl asked in disgust. “We’ve only had three woman presidents to sixty-five men. I’m voting for a woman.” She tapped at an option on the tablet to select her candidate’s sex.
“Yeah I’m voting for a girl too,” one of the guys said, “and she will be the hottest… I’m talking 373.15 Kelvin hot.”
“She won’t look the way you want,” Moana chimed in. The others turned to look at her. “Or act like it. The process is called ‘Mosaic’ remember? He or she or they will be the mean average of all the votes. Your input is negligible.”
“If it’s so negligible, then why are you bothering to vote?” he snapped. “You don’t have to just because you’re eighteen now.”
Before she could answer, something flew down into the group and harassed them. The blue object flew back and forth tapping at random foreheads with a crinkled beak. It swooped around Moana’s head a few times and plucked one of her black hairs out on its last pass. She didn’t flinch; this kind of behavior was to be expected from Fredrick.
He swaggered up in his typical style: tie untied, shoes untied, belt undone, sleeves rolled up, and a pair of bright red zits near his hairline that never seemed to go away, like the buds of impish horns. Something like a crushed candy wrapper full of electricity was in his hand. As his fingers moved up and down the wrapper, the harassing object responded by flying over and landing on his shoulder.
Moana finally got a clear look at it: something like the origami cranes she used to make in kindergarten. That was the same year she memorized the first 400 digits of pi and her parents rewarded her with a cake covered in cheap pink icing and an entrance application to P.H.I.M. which was not so cheap.
“What is that thing?” the girl who liked primary colors asked.
“An origami robot,” Moana answered for Fredrick in order to steal his thunder. As far as she was concerned, no one should be rewarded for throwing themselves into a situation with their pants down and shouting to get attention. That was essentially what Fredrick did, whether his medium was underwear or new technologies his criminally wealthy parents received as free gifts to complement their latest house, jet, jet house, orbiter, or orbiter holo-sauna. “It’s got artificial muscle fibers and microchips embedded in the paper. After you fold it into a shape, the robot decides what it’s supposed to be capable of. A crane can fly,” she explained.
“And frogs can hop!” Fredrick blurted. He then emptied his pockets, pouring origami frogs onto the nearest table. The tiny robots croaked and bounced all over the place. A few of the students squealed and recoiled insincerely. It’s not like they’re even slimy, Moana thought, sighing.
She was wasting her time there, so she made a beeline for an unoccupied table pushed up against the glass. Once she sat down she noticed it was raining. Small droplets joined with bigger ones, eventually creating mighty rivers coursing down the panes. Can one drop make a difference? If that raindrop there had hit three inches to the left… would the stream it joined be heading in a different direction? No. It’s just a numbers game like everything else. One drop in a hundred barely makes a difference. One in 400 million?
Moana snapped out of it and stared at the blank spaces on her tablet’s screen. The school was only giving them so much time; otherwise the slackers might say they needed a few days to sculpt the United States’ next leader. At least she could get the obvious parts out of the way.
Genetic Background: Polynesian
Five most important traits: honest, intelligent, brave, compassionate, even-tempered
Easy enough so far. She clicked around the screen to get to the appearance tab. What should a president look like? It really didn’t matter much to her, but she couldn’t bring herself to mark ‘no preference’.
“What kind of background are you giving him?” a boy asked as he sat down next to her. “Since he’ll have his finger on the button I’m giving him a focus in medicine. If he’s going to push it I want him to know exactly what radiation does to a body you know? He’ll have to live with that knowledge if he does it.”
“-will have a focus in mathematics. I don’t want her relying on others to just show her the numbers for our economy or our troops. I’d like her to practically have the numbers printed across her mind. Not that it matters,” she added. The boy stared at her with a surprisingly sad look, like someone watching an endangered species made of chocolate melt in the sun. She remembered his name was Lucas. Last year he had asked her if she wanted to go to the annual Pascal Festival of New Ideas: the school’s closest thing to a prom. She had said no and passed up the experience entirely to study for midterms. I remember I was very polite about it. Here he was again, hair short and spiky and teeth just crooked enough for his smile to be endearing.
“Why do you think it doesn’t matter?” he asked, practically whimpering.
“No president has ever lost an election because of one vote,” she explained, her tone softening some; he really looked like the kind of guy who could cry from seeing roadkill.
“Well no, but this time is different. There’s no more buying the election. No more parties. Just what everybody really wants,” he said, handing over his tablet so Moana could see the man he’d created. The face of Lucas’s candidate was identical to Abraham Lincoln. He noticed that she noticed. “That’s so he knows what he has to live up to. Every penny he sees will remind him of his responsibilities.”
“Except he won’t end up looking like Lincoln. You said it yourself; this Mosaic election is just an average. Chances are you won’t contribute a thousandth of a freckle.”
“You wouldn’t be voting if you believed that,” he said pointedly. She sat in silence for a moment. “You think your vote will somehow rise above the others,” he continued. “That your strengths will be in that new person, our new leader, no matter what.”
“Doing my civic duty does not necessarily mean I believe it will make a difference,” she said defensively. “And I’m sorry but I need to focus. Bye.” Before he could respond she stood up and walked away, almost tripping on the strap of someone’s purse. The atrium was full of people that would love to look over her shoulder like judgmental gargoyles.
There had to be somewhere quiet to vote; Moana looked around. The holoscreen at the back of the atrium was displaying a tutorial for the tablets. A few adults were guarding the doors, big ‘election official’ sashes across their chests. A few lunch tables had been set up on the remaining wall and loaded with baskets of cold submarine sandwiches wrapped in paper. She knew without smelling or seeing them what they contained: lots of neutral combinations that wouldn’t offend the taste of the masses like ham and Swiss or roast beef and cheddar. Perhaps their new leader would be the human equivalent of ham and cheese: bland, inoffensive, and traditional.
No one will look under there. They’ll be too busy stuffing their faces to bend down. She hustled over to the food tables, knelt down, and crawled under them. There was just enough room to sit if she bent her head forward and held the tablet on her crossed legs.
She began drawing the face and body of her candidate, the tablet’s database making up for her lack in artistic skills. It turned her vague ovals into eyes, those weird pretzel shapes into ears, etc. She had forgotten how hard it was to draw without a compass. She tapped around and tweaked the features, ignoring the crunching of pickle spears and the fizz of newly opened ginger ale cans.
I wonder what it will be like to be born from a national average. 400 million selections combined into one. Then that one will be translated, by artificial impartial intelligence, into a genetic profile. Then that profile is grown in an artificial womb, accelerated by synthetic hormones and metabolic catalysts. In a month you’ve got a fully grown human being with no mind of its own, just enough electrical activity to pump a heart and work the lungs. Less intelligence than a ladybug.
Then comes the soul, poured in like summer lemonade. Sweet and instant… a flood of complexity. An empty maze rearranges itself into a thinking machine… In reality, a biomechanical interface cable links into the brain stem and uploads the personality created by averaging every American’s opinions together. Then presto: the new leader of the free world.
That was the idea anyway, as this was the first official Mosaic election. For all they knew a twisted mass of flesh, the animal equivalent of a hamper full of dirty laundry, might pour out of the machine at the end. Well, I want that ball of goo to at least be educated. She wrote that her candidate should well versed in literature, poetry, history, biology, meteorology, mathematics, physics, economics, medicine, and international languages.
Maybe one brain can’t fit all that, but something has to be done to counteract everyone who wants them to be vapid. Should I overshoot with the aim of undoing someone else’s influence, to get her closer to what I want? I have to. Imagine getting something that half the guys here are voting for right now, something that holds wet tee shirt contestants on the White House lawn. Imagine the depraved beast Fredrick is folding together.
As if hearing her thoughts, an origami frog spotted Moana and hopped in her direction. It croaked, like a burp through an old truck radio, and dodged shuffling student dress shoes as best it could. Please get stepped on. Alas, the pseudo-amphibian made it past the crowd and hopped into her lap. She tried to shoo it away, but it merely leapt over her arm every time. Finally giving up on the aggressive tactic, Moana reached down slowly with an open palm. The frog looked at her warily for a moment, decided she meant no harm, and jumped into her hand.
It really was an incredible invention, much easier to admire without Fredrick standing by and gloating about how much they cost or what horrible things he planned to do with them. There was a blue patch flashing on its back. She tapped it gently and the frog’s motion ceased.
They had all learned quite a bit of origami when working on dimension-crossing formulas, so Moana thought for a moment and recalled one pattern she particularly enjoyed. The frog seemed as dead as any other piece of paper in her hands, so she didn’t feel bad about slowly unfolding its form back to a flat state. Then she created a new series of folds, carefully creasing each one as precisely as she could so her figure wouldn’t wind up lopsided. She tugged, folded, flattened, and picked at it rigorously, oblivious to the fact that she paid more attention to the toy than her future leader.
After a few minutes she had successfully turned the frog into a gorilla perched on its knuckles and looking rather pensive with a shadowy brow. She pressed the flashing blue spot again and the creature came to life. It explored her wrist, holding onto it like a thick tree branch. It swung from the edges of her fingernails before hopping off and climbing to the top of her knee as if it was a real silverback surveying its kingdom.
His rule did not last long however, as the hand of a malevolent deity descended from the sky and grabbed him from his throne on Moana’s knee. The fingers turned up and joined at their tips, forming prison bars the gorilla could not slip through. The evil god squatted down and looked at Moana. A swarm of origami frogs opped around his feet and got tangled in his shoe laces like lobotomized minions.
“Did I say you could play with my stuff?” Fredrick asked with a sneer.
“Sorry,” Moana said flatly. “I couldn’t resist. Besides, it seemed to like me.” She noticed he only had the wrapper-controller in his other hand. “Where’s your votepad?”
“Pff, I’m not voting,” Fredrick scoffed.
“And why not?” she asked, trying and failing to mimic Lucas’s hurt tone when she’d said something similar. Instead it just sounded like she was daring him to say the most offensive thing he could, which he was happy to oblige.
“I’m not sharing the responsibility when that thing comes out. Humans need to get screwed up the old fashioned way: by their parents and by prisons like this. If not, we can’t be sure his primal urges have been repressed enough. We won’t know if his hideous amoral dreams have been beaten out of him.”
“Have yours been beaten out of you?” She asked, trying not to sound shaken.
“Yep. I’m a complete success. I’ve been beaten so many times I wouldn’t dare try and stop the powers that be.” His eyes softened a little. Moana thought she could see something in them: a memory floating around like a torn cloth caught in a cold gust.
“The American people are acting as the parents,” she said. “We’re implanting morals that would take years to grow. Since it’s all very technical, they’re more likely to turn out as planned than the average child.”
“Nah,” Fredrick said, his gaze cast down at the gorilla caged in his palm. The paper creature reached an arm out toward Moana, almost begging for help. “All these conflicting ideas will tear the thing apart. It won’t even be human, let alone the president of the United States. The second all those warring thoughts hit the gray matter-” Fredrick squeezed his hand into a fist. All his knuckles popped. Only the gorilla’s hand stuck out between the fingers, twitching like a severed cockroach leg. Even though it was only paper and electricity, even though she knew no streams of blood would come from its little broken body, she felt like throwing up. Suddenly the briny smell of pickles reeked of decaying corpses.
“This is what you’re creating,” Fredrick said with a grin. He opened his hand slowly. The crumple of paper only moved a little. It expanded and contracted weakly as if breathing. He dropped it on the ground where it rolled a few inches. All the origami frogs fled from it like it was the kind of toxic waste that ended up making frogs with five legs or inside out intestines. “Looks like they haven’t accepted him as their leader.”
“You’re repulsive,” Moana said before crawling out into the open. Fredrick leaned against the table and dug into the sandwiches while she fled. The table was a bad idea. There had to be somewhere she could go in the atrium where she would be truly alone.
The floor was getting dirty from all the activity, crushed chips and wrappers building up beneath the thicket of students. She saw a votepad with a broken screen on the floor. The profile on it looked a little like Lincoln. There’s got to be somewhere. There was. Across the tables and tucked in beside the screen displaying the tutorials was a door marked ‘technical staff only’. Perfect. She walked briskly to it, ignoring the stares. When the three election officials were looking away she took the opportunity, slipping inside and closing the door.
The only light came from her votepad and the random dust-coated power lights of the audio visual equipment. Decades-old blocky machines hummed like an enclave of meditating monks. The blanket of sound and the thick door erased the din of the students and allowed her a deep calming breath.
There was a shelf in the back of the room. Moana felt compelled to distance herself from her classmates as much as possible, so she climbed on top of a large vibrating metal box, stood on her tiptoes, and pulled herself up onto the empty shelf. She put her back to the wall. Safe in her dark remote corner, her mind was finally able to make a decision free of pressure.
What if he’s right? We could all be the equivalent of abusive arguing parents, tearing a kid apart before they’re even born. They’ll be a human with one blue brain hemisphere and one red hemisphere. Their corpus callosum will be nothing but a maze of Vietnam War dirt tunnels full of caked blood, landmines, and razor wire.
She dropped the votepad. It hit the shelf and kicked up dust that swiftly settled back onto the screen and covered her candidate. The image suddenly looked like an old portrait from a haunted mansion. I want her to be happy. Maybe I should give her an urge to quit politics and become an entomologist in South America. Something peaceful, far from angry voters who blamed each other for how she turned out.
Much of the equipment shut off, making the room even darker. The tutorials had stopped playing. She could hear hundreds of feet as some of the students shuffled out. Time was up. By now people were placing their tablets into huge bins that would wirelessly pull each profile out of them before they were recycled for their plastic and metal. Moana wanted to stay in her dark corner and ponder the consequences of her vote for another few years. She had a few minutes.
I just need the certainty that my vote will count. I just need to know that I’m pushing the bar in the right direction even if 400 million people are pushing the other way.
An idea struck her that seemed to light the space. It ignited a creative fire in her hands, which took up the stylus and worked frantically. She pulled up the ‘extra details’ section of the profile and turned on italics, bold, and underline. She breathed: the breath she was putting into this person, this leader. Her wisp of an addition to the country’s future.
They will know my name.
Moana switched off the votepad and struggled to descend in the darkness. When she emerged from the closet she was covered in dust and had several smears of unidentified grease near the hem of her skirt. The last of her classmates were tossing their tablets in the bins, watched over by the officials. Moana started in that direction, stopped, and turned to the sandwich tables. After scurrying over to them she leaned down, picked up the crushed origami gorilla, and went to the end of the line.
Four Years Later
The sun tried and failed to beat down the crowd outside the Grand Atlanta Hotel, as if Apollo himself were trying to stomp the life out of Earth’s bug-like denizens. Every face was dominated by sweat, a lolling tongue, or a camera poised at the hotel’s front doors.
Campaign signs were everywhere, even tattooed on some extremely devoted citizens’ upper arms, and one extremely drunk forehead.
Moana stood in the crowd. She wasn’t one to shove normally, but she had to see him to have any hope of getting what she wanted. The blue uniform had successfully been ditched when she graduated third in her class. Now she had a job doing some of the ‘creative number crunching’ for an organization that used radio tags to track individual members of endangered species.
The computers just couldn’t guess where the animals would go or what they would do next, but Moana had a knack for creating such predictive models. Sometimes she lied awake on cool nights hoping she actually did save the leatherback sea turtle when she correctly predicted which stretch of beach the last group of forty-five wild individuals had decided to nest on when their original home was destroyed.
The roar of the crowd snapped her out of her cool and dimly lit daydream. The doors of the hotel opened and out came a procession of Secret Service, the president, and a cadre of advisers that held up the rear.
He was running for reelection after four years of completely neutral service. No wars were started. The nation’s debts did not grow or shrink. Unemployment, hunger, and homelessness had not risen or fallen. Though he signed many bills into law, they all seemed to have a stabilizing effect on whatever subject of national concern they touched.
Even Moana, who was born somewhat jaded, was surprised by how vanilla the people’s candidate turned out. His name was Samuel Day. Those were the first words he spoke when they pulled him out of the machine: My name is Samuel Day. He looked to be about thirty-five, although there was no way to accurately gauge such a figure. His hair was dark brown and his skin white, but not so white that he couldn’t get a crisp tan. Perfect teeth. Never tripped when he walked. Never said ‘umm’ in the middle of a sentence.
Everyone chickened out. Everybody in the nation had some extreme new idea for the perfect leader, but in the end they just wrote what they knew down before quietly throwing it in the bin. That was one possibility. The other was that the nation had become a people of polar opposites, and the process of the Mosaic election had landed their leader squarely in the middle.
Samuel Day was getting very close. Moana pushed her way to the front after having drifted backward in both thought and body. She leaned over the ropes and started babbling like some pop star’s fan club president. Her shame stood next to her like an apparition and glared at her, but she ignored it.
“Mr. President!” she shouted, feeling six years old. “Over here Mr. Day! Do you remember me? Do you know my name?” The amoeba of muscles and sunglasses surrounding the president slid by her, well-oiled and dangerous. She could barely make out his face amongst them.
Moana was not the kind of person to drive two hundred miles and then slink her way home with no results, so she let the crowd form a new front layer against the ropes before running in the direction the president was headed. She ducked under flailing arms and dodged a few beer guts that threatened to knock her over. It took fifteen seconds of this hustle to get ahead of Day. Her left cheek already ached from where someone’s elbow had hit it like a pickax.
Doesn’t matter. This time she reached her hand over the rope as they passed by and managed to graze his shoulder. Samuel looked back for a moment but did not stop walking. The only one who did was the bodyguard that grabbed her arm, shoved her back, and pointed menacingly. Moana backed up, hopping up and down to keep sight of him.
I guess that’s it. There’s the proof. My vote didn’t count. Nobody’s counts. Every leader winds up like this no matter what we try. Power turns them bad and births them bad.
Samuel Day turned around before ducking his head into the limo. A look came over his face, like he just remembered he forgot to buy someone important a birthday gift. Like someone wondering if they left enough food for their pet before leaving the house. He scanned the crowd for a second and spotted Moana. He saw her disappointment, which sent the information he sought up from the depths of his own mind. It broke the surface in a glorious colorful splash. Moana, he mouthed at her. Then the first collaborative president of the United States of America closed the door and sped off to his next event, the intangible strings connecting him to Moana tugging delicately but constantly.
The system works. Well… it does something. And I can do something or nothing. She turned her head and smiled at the figure gripping her shirt collar: a tiny and very worn looking gorilla, softened by years napping in her wallet, poked her neck playfully.