The shootings never seem to stop—chances are, whenever we might have published this, there would have been a mass shooting carried out by a deranged, misogynistic malcontent with easy access to guns in the preceding days. And sure enough, the massacre in Annapolis unfolded just as we were preparing this story for publication. The NRA would rather every last school, theater, and public place overflow with guns and ammunition than curtail for a second the sale of a single weapon of death, and the majority of politicians are only too happy to oblige, instead issuing vague condemnations and concerns about mental health. So, today’s story imagines one possible future in which we’ve turned to technology to cope. -the Ed.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Jane politely waited, holding a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies, fresh out of the oven, her brown hair tied back, loose hairs hanging around her neck. She wore high-waisted jeans, a red button-down shirt and blue T-shirt. She smiled a bit too wide as the door opened a crack.
“I’m not letting you in,” a gruff voice informed her. She smiled wider.
“William, we must have our chat. I brought cookies,” Jane stated, holding the cookies out.
The door opened another inch and a teenage boy peeked out.
Jane’s smile faltered. The boy was difficult to see. He was 5’6’’, sandy blonde hair, brown eyes that were too close together, no eyebrows, and a pasty complexion splattered with dark freckles. He wore a white shirt and sweatpants with black boots. Jane coughed, covering her mouth. He smelled like a weight room and stale pizza. When she put her hand back at her side, her smile was flashing again.
“Why did you bring cookies?” The boy asked, scowling at the plate, but his eyes flickered with a flash of desire, gone quickly, though Jane caught it.
“Because, your mother told me you like cookies—chocolate chip to be precise,” Jane answered.
“Leave my mom out of this,” William growled, turning away from Jane to walk back inside his apartment.
“William, may I come in? I don’t like to stand in hallways,” Jane said politely.
“Sure, it’s not like I have a choice,” he grumbled over his shoulder.
She strolled after him through the cramped one bedroom apartment that he shared with his mother. The apartment was clean, but untidy, clothes, books and video games strewn on the pull-out couch, table and counters.
Jane walked over to the counter and placed the cookies down. “Do you have plates and some milk?”
“Really?” William glared at her, eyes bulging.
“I prefer to use a plate and have a glass of milk when I eat cookies. You?”
“Sure.” William stomped over to the fridge and flung open the door. It slammed against the wall and swung back at him. He caught it, squeezing it, his hand red, knuckles white. He slung out a half-full gallon of milk and flung it across the counter toward the cookies. Jane caught the milk before it collided with the plate.
“Thank you. Now, the plates and glasses?” Jane hummed a melody as she looked around the kitchen. “Are they in here?” Jane asked reaching toward a cupboard. William rushed over and slammed his hand on the cupboard door.
“No!” William raised his chin up and stretched his body to make himself as tall as possible, but he still only glared into Jane’s neck. She was quite a bit taller than him.
“My mom doesn’t like people getting into her stuff,” William huffed. He dropped the plates and glasses down on the counter. William watched one glass twirl around until it finally rested, and he calmed a bit. He reached for the milk and poured two glasses. He grabbed tongs from a drawer and placed a cookie on each plate.
“Do you want two?” He asked.
“I shouldn’t, but I will.” Jane half-smiled as she watched William place another cookie on her plate and two more on his and then softly set the tongs in the sink.
“Thank you, William,” Jane said quietly.
“You’re welcome,” William responded as he picked up his plate and glass and even smiled. “Let’s sit at the table.”
“That would be nice,” Jane said.
They sat on opposite sides of a white circular wooden table. Jane bit into one of the cookies and chewed slowly. She smiled at William. He stared back, not touching his cookies. She washed down her bite with some milk. “Why are we here, William?”
William slumped in his chair and glanced out the window. The sun was bright and inviting. “It’s a nice day, I’d like to go for a walk.”
Jane’s lip twitched. She brushed her hands together over her plate. “I would love to go on a walk, but our last one proved we have some more work to do first.”
“What work? We do some variation of the same boring thing every time. How long does this go on?”
“Until it works,” Jane stated.
“Until what works?” William’s voice raised and his left hand formed into a fist.
“You’re angry right now?” Jane asked.
“Obviously,” William snapped.
“You are making me angry!” William yelled.
“Oh, come off it. All you moms going on about being the fucking change, making sure you say exactly the woke thing, use the right hashtag, showing us boys how we can be part of the movement, it’s a trap!”
“How is it a trap?”
“You just want to tear us down, tell us we are broken and need to be fixed, I don’t want to be fixed!” William screamed in Jane’s face, his spittle hitting her cheek.
Jane wiped his saliva off her cheek. “That’s new. You didn’t say you weren’t broken this time.”
“Wait, what? What the fuck are you talking about?” William sputtered, pacing around the room.
“You always insist you aren’t broken, several times, but this time, you didn’t,” Jane smiled her annoying smile.
“I’m not fucking broken! See!” William moved his arms, legs and neck demonstrating their functionality.
Jane took another bite of her cookie as William glowered at her. “What is the deal with the baked goods anyway?”
“People love baked goods, they are intimate, but non-threatening,” Jane said.
“No, they’re not. They could be poisoned,” William eyed his cookies suspiciously.
“I would never drug you William, I’m not a monster,” Jane replied as she pushed her plate of cookies aside.
William shot up and snapped, “Oh, and I am? Is that it?”
“Of course not, but your actions follow a certain pattern, a pattern that left unchecked almost always end violently.”
“I told you, I told everyone, I legally purchased all my guns, no crimes have been committed AT ALL,” William shouted.
“No, no, they haven’t, you are correct on that point,” Jane agreed.
“I know I am,” William retorted.
Maybe if they had been able to change the gun laws rather than re-haul the entire mental health system, that law-abiding part might be enough to get you out of here, but that is not what they did, so here we are, she thought. Jane’s gaze bore into William. His jaw clenched and his breath deepened as his heartbeat increased.
“I am not mentally ill,” William insisted through gritted teeth.
“You bought an assault rifle with large capacity magazines on your 18th birthday. Your mom has called the police on you three times since then, and you have posted very disturbing threats on social media.” Jane sipped her milk.
“I was joking, anyone who knows me knows I have a sick sense of humor,” William brushed her off.
“That type of humor is one of our indicators,” Jane stated.
“So, now it’s a crime to make bad jokes?” William scoffed.
“Not a crime, exactly.”
“We call B.S.” William grinned.
Jane ignored him. “Your mother cares a great deal -”
“We call B.S.” William chuckled.
“The city wants you to integrate-”
“We call B.S.” Will cackled.
“We all want you to be less angry-”
“WE CALL B.S!” William chucked his plate at the wall, smashing it to pieces. His cookies crumbled among the jagged shards of glass. Jane flinched.
“That is not a funny joke, William. It’s not even a joke,” Jane reprimanded him. William doubled over, laughing, and once he caught his breath, he said, “I guess only a certain type of teenager can call B.S. these days?”
“This is the type of acting out that got you put in here in the first place, William.” Jane’s brow furrowed.
“That’s B.S.” William wasn’t laughing anymore. “I’m here because of you. I’m here because the world hates guys like me,” William said bitterly.
Jane sighed. She walked to the kitchen and put her plate and glass in the sink. “No William, you are here because our system, PAT, flagged your own, many bad choices.”
“The tech industry needs to burn. All your predictive analytics shit, deciding who is good and who is bad based on data mining, tracking purchases? No one can even make unpopular choices without getting locked up anymore,” William ranted as he walked over to his shattered plate. He glared into one large jagged piece. “That’s why you people can’t deal with me, you don’t like the mirror I hold up.”
“You need to address your rage or I can’t help you get out of here.” Jane walked to the cupboard William didn’t want her touching, and cracked it open a bit. William’s hand slammed against hers, nearly breaking the cupboard door.
“You’re hurting me, William,” Jane gasped.
William squashed her hand into the cupboard. “I don’t want you in that cupboard, it’s private! Not that you fuckers give a shit.” William raised his other arm up, holding the shard like a knife.
Jane shouted, “Blueberry Pancakes.” William completely froze and his eyes flipped to static snow like a non-transmitting T.V. station. Jane inhaled sharply and opened her eyes. She wore a white medical coat, electrodes taped to her head. She was reclined in a chair next to William who was shackled to a hospital bed, unconscious, electrodes also taped to his head. Jane tugged at her arm, but couldn’t get her hand free.
A soothing voice filled the room. “Jane, is everything okay?”
She spoke, “PAT, please restart the trial.”
PAT chided, “You can’t pause the trial. It skews the outcome.”
“William passed 49 of his 100 trials. This is the last one. If he fails, he goes to surgery, it’s over for him. If he passes, he graduates to the next level, where we can actually help him get better.”
“Not by cheating,” the voice said. “I know it’s close, but if he fails this trial, the odds are too great that he will eventually kill a real human. We have to follow procedure or innocents will be slaughtered. Our system is failsafe.”
“I can help him-”
“You help him best by getting back into position and finishing the interaction per the protocol,” PAT replied.
Jane’s shoulders slumped in resignation. Debating an AI was pointless. All this, just so they’d never have to restrict sales on a single gun, she thought, cursing.
She returned to her earlier position, looking up at the jagged piece of glass in William’s hand. A small dot of red formed on his palm. William’s eyes returned to normal. Jane winced and pleaded, “Don’t.”
William slashed Jane’s throat with the jagged piece of plate.
Jane clutched her throat, blood gushing out. Then, for the fiftieth and final time, he reached into the cabinet, removed an assault rifle from the cabinet and filled her body with bullets. She tried to speak but only blood dripped out of her lips as she crumbled to the floor. He collapsed to his knees next to her body. William trembled as her eyes shut.
A beeping sound rang through the room and down the hallway. There were rooms upon rooms, floors upon floors, buildings upon buildings filled with boys and psychologists hooked up to computers, running simulation after simulation, trying for a different outcome than predicted.
“LET ME OUT!” William screamed back inside. His bloody hands covered his face and he sobbed.