(reading time: 23 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 metal design in order to cast the shadow of a shifting hypercube on the floor below.
If the schedule had included the usual dry lecture students would’ve simply trickled in, but today they flooded through the door. Each one held a cheap plastic PDA in their hands, some having already managed to get smears of peanut butter 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 or leaned up against the glass sides of the room.
Every student present was at least eighteen years old, since you had to be to vote. All the other pupils who hadn’t yet attained the lofty age were busy eating overcooked food 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. She tended to stick out of the crowd a little because, even though all the girls wore the same blue uniforms with their long skirts, wide shoulders, and calculator pins, her skin was much darker than most of her peers. Her island heritage meant she had skin like bronze and hair like black silk. Her uniform was spotless and freer of wrinkles than mannequin skin. The PDA clutched in her arms was also pristine and unsmudged. She wandered over to a pocket of acquaintances and listened in on their conversation.
“I’m going to make him blonde,” one girl said as she scribbled away on her PDA with a stylus. “He needs to surround himself with happy colors. It’ll promote a positive attitude in every American who sees him.”
“Why are you making it a man?” another girl asked with a disgusted tone. “We’ve only had three female presidents to sixty-five males. I’m voting for a woman.” The girl tapped at an option on the PDA to select her candidate’s sex.
“Yeah I’m voting for a chick too,” one of the guys said. “And she will be the hottest… I’m talking 373.15 degrees Kelvin hot.”
“She’s not going to 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 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?” the boy snapped back. “You don’t have to just because you’re eighteen now.”
Before she could answer, something flew down into the group of students and started to harass them. The blue object flew back and forth tapping at random foreheads with a crinkled beak. It swirled around Moana’s head a few times and plucked one of her hairs out on its last pass. She didn’t even flinch. This kind of behavior was to be expected from Fredrick.
He walked up to the group 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 two impish horns. He had what looked like a crushed candy wrapper full of electricity in his hand. As his fingers moved up and down the wrapper, the small flying object responded by flying over and landing on his shoulder. Moana finally got a clear look at it: something like the paper cranes she used to make in kindergarten. That was the same year she memorized the first four hundred 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-jacuzzi. “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 exclaimed. He then emptied his pockets, pouring origami frogs onto the desks everyone was gathered around. The little robots croaked and bounced all over the place. A few of the girls squealed with delight and recoiled insincerely. It’s not like they’re even slimy, Moana thought and sighed. She was wasting her time there, so she made a bee line for an unoccupied desk that had been turned to face the glass. Once she sat down she noticed it was raining. Small droplets joined with bigger ones, creating mighty rivers pulled down the glass by gravity. Can one drop make a difference? Moana contemplated. 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 her blank PDA. 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 PDA 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 on the screen.
“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.”
“She,” Moana started.
“Oh sorry,” the boy said.
“…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 said. 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 actually passed up the experience entirely to study for midterms. I remember I was very polite about it, Moana told herself. 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. Clearly she’d said something truly offensive.
“No president has ever lost an election because of one vote,” she explained, her tone having softened a little. He really looked like the kind of guy who could cry just from seeing road kill.
“Well no, but this time is different. Everyone’s vote has just as much influence as everyone else’s. There’s no more buying the election. No more parties. Just the average,” he said and handed over his PDA so Moana could see the man he’d created. The face of Lucas’ candidate looked exactly like Abraham Lincoln. When he noticed the way she looked at it he chimed, “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 even contribute a whole 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. Goodbye.” 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. Peer pressure had no place in an election. There had to be somewhere quiet to vote. Moana looked around. The holoscreen at the back end of the atrium was displaying a tutorial for the PDAs. 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, she thought. They’ll be too busy stuffing their faces to bend down. She hustled over to the food tables, kneeled down, and crawled under them. There was just enough room to sit if she bent her head forward and held the PDA between her crossed legs. She began drawing the face and body of her candidate, the PDA’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 sounds 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, she thought. 400 million profiles combined into an average. Then that average is translated, again by computer, 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 a refreshing glass of 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 back of the brain 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. 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, Moana thought. She wrote that she wanted her candidate to be well versed in literature, poetry, history, biology, meteorology, mathematics, physics, economics, medicine, and international languages. Maybe one brain can’t fit all that, she worried. Something had to be done to counteract all the ditzes who were going to vote for guitar-playing surfers or greasy-haired faux gangsters. Then there was bound to be the average young male’s vision, buxom in breast but not brain, someone who would giggle her way through peace summits and hold wet T-shirt contests on the White House lawn. She couldn’t even comprehend what kind of depraved beast Fredrick was voting for.
As if hearing her thoughts, an origami frog spotted Moana from across the atrium and began hopping in her direction. It croaked electronically and dodged shuffling student dress shoes as best it could. Please get stepped on, she thought. 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 leapt into her hand.
It really was an incredible invention that was 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 small 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 remembered 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 perfectly 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. 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. 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 lowered itself onto its knees and looked at Moana. A swarm of origami frogs hopped around his feet and got tangled in his shoe laces like lobotomized minions.
“Did I say you could play with my stuff?” Fredrick sneered.
“Sorry,” Moana said flatly. “I couldn’t resist. Besides, it just seemed to like me.” She noticed Fredrick only had the wrapper-controller in his other hand. “Where’s your PDA?” She asked, genuinely curious.
“Pff, I’m not voting,” Fredrick scoffed.
“And why not?” Moana asked, trying and failing to mimic Lucas’ 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. He was happy to oblige.
“I’m not going to share in 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 towards Moana, almost seeming to beg 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 ideas 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 smile. 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 little. 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 disgusting,” Moana said and crawled out into the open. Fredrick leaned against the table and started digging into the food 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.
Students compared ideals. Girls giggled over the buff and sensitive romance cover illustrations they’d designed on their PDAs. They practically swooned. The floor was getting dirty from all the activity, crushed potato chips and wrappers built up beneath the thickets of students. She saw a PDA with a broken screen on the floor. The profile on it looked a little like Abraham Lincoln. There’s got to be somewhere, she thought. 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. She stood against the wall next to the door and watched the three adults for a window of opportunity. When all their eyes were turned away, she slipped inside the door and closed it.
The only light came from the screen of her PDA and the random dust-covered power lights of the audio visual equipment. Decades-old blocky machines hummed like a group of meditating monks. The blanket of sound and the thick door erased the noise of the students and allowed her to take a deep calm 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 it’s even born. It’ll be a human with one blue brain hemisphere and one red hemisphere. Its Corpus Callosum will be nothing but a maze of Vietnam War dirt tunnels full of caked blood, landmines, and razor wire.
She dropped the PDA. It hit the shelf and sent dust into the air that quickly 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, she thought. 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 PDAs into huge electronic 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 four hundred million people are pushing the other way.
An idea struck her that seemed to light the dark room. It ignited a creative fire in her hands, allowing her to write on the PDA screen with her stylus very clearly without misshaping a single letter. 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, she wrote.
Moana switched off the PDA and struggled to descend in the darkness. When she emerged from the closet she was covered in dust and had several smears of grease near the hem of her skirt. The last of the students were tossing their PDAs into the bins that were watched over by the officials. Moana started in that direction, stopped, and turned towards the sandwich tables. After scurrying over to them she leaned down, picked up the crushed origami gorilla, and returned to the end of the line.
Four Years Later
The sun beat down aggressively on 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 be able 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. Apparently 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 laid 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 advisors that held up the rear.
He was running for re-election 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 effect, 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 nice crisp tan. Perfect teeth. Never tripped when he walked. Never said ‘umm’ in the middle of a sentence.
Everyone chickened out, Moana thought. 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 railing and started babbling like some pop star’s fan club president. Her shame stood next to her like an apparition and glared with an expression that said, Look at yourself. You’re pathetic; you know that? Moana hushed the feelings
“Mr. President!” she said, 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 like something oily and dangerous. She could barely make out his face. Moana was not the kind of person to drive two hundred miles and then idle 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 large number of beer guts that threatened to knock her over. It took fifteen seconds of this hustle to get ahead of the president. Her left cheek already ached from where someone’s elbow had hit it like a pickaxe.
Doesn’t matter, she thought. This time she reached her hand over the rail 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 backwards, and pointed menacingly at her. Moana stood back up, knees bloodied by the pavement. She hopped up and down to keep sight of him and kept calling.
I guess that’s it, she thought solemnly. 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 minute and then saw 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. Samuel Day closed the door and sped off to his next event, the intangible strings connecting him to Moana tugging delicately but constantly.
The system works, Moana thought. She turned her head and smiled at the figure gripping her shirt collar: a tiny and very worn looking gorilla that poked her playfully.