He cleaned up his laboratory, disposing of the liquid contents of the tubes and preparing the lab for a new round of experiments once the power was back. He decided to do his shopping now when the diesel emergency power generators would still run. Usually, they lasted a couple of hours. After this period of time, electricity was only available to the citizens in the highest echelons. He’d better do the things he needed to do with the help of the network immediately.
Lex logged in with an iris scan. ‘Protein, 1 kilo, carbohydrates 1 kilo, 500 gram fibre and 300 gram fat.’ These ingredients had then to be combined with the digestion bacteria he had at home to prepare a meal that was exactly customized to his body. He was about to give his permission for the payment, when he saw again the unusually high price. What was going on here? The total sum for his shopping list was nearly twice as high as usual. He looked for mistakes or double orderings, but none of this was the case. The prices had gone up. He searched for alternative ingredients in the shop, but these were equally expensive. He visited other shops with no success. Finally, he found a small old-fashioned shop where he paid the normal price. He made a mental note. Once the power was back, he would dive into this pricing issue.
Now that the power was out, there was not much to do for Lex, so he took Splinter for a walk, who was irritated first about the timing, but then very excited. It turned out that Seldon had the same idea.
This time Lex remembered that Seldon had told him ‘to forget his PD’ and imagined Seldon grinning about this wordplay. He hesitated, however, whether he should really leave his personal device behind. He never ever went anywhere without it – what if he needed help? On the other hand, Seldon had sounded earnest when he brought up the issue. To deceive him now could undermine their new bond. Lex did not want to put this relation in danger, which was handy at least and a promising friendship at most. Lex left his device on his laboratory kitchen table, next to his plants. When Lex left his apartment, he felt like naked without his digital gear. Besides, it was really difficult to do nothing. Usually, he checked social prompts and news, or posted some messages.
Lex was disappointed about the lack of progress he had made regarding the mobility of plants. He looked forward to Seldon’s solutions to the alternative communication system. Seldon carried a book under his arm. Lex knew some people who collected books, and in his university library there was a Trésor with old books even going back to the 17th century. Books were nice for museums, he thought. Lex said hello to Seldon but his friend did not return the greeting. Instead, Seldon tapped vigorously with his index finger on the cover. ‘Do you know who she is?’ Seldon handed the book over to Lex and it took him one quick glance to recognize the scientist from the news yesterday.
‘It is Alida Oosterveen, why do you ask?’
The book was her biography and the cover pictured her.
‘You saw her death and funeral reported in the news yesterday, right?’ Seldon asked without the question-intonation, it was the first statement in reasoning, not a genuine query.
‘This book was written in 2002. Guess what? This biography describes that she died in 2000, at the age of 74. Here, there are pictures of her funeral, and it includes the written accounts of the speeches delivered at her burial.’ Seldon opened the book on page 219, where indeed, her death was reported.
Lex did not believe the message from his academic friend. There had to be a plausible explanation for this double report of the death of a well-known scientist. And since the news was open to a wide, critical public, probably this publication was wrong.
Seldon took the book back and continued the walk. The dogs got used to each other. They did not even sniff at each other anymore and walked side by side.
‘What is your hunch? Is the book mistaken, or was today’s report about her death fake news?’ Lex asked.
‘I am absolutely, 100%, no, 1000% sure that the news today was fake.’
Seldon did not wait for Lex’ reaction and opened the book on another page that showed a picture of a large conference hall, full of people. A tall man stood behind a lectern on stage. The subscript of the picture read: ‘Professor Iddekinge delivering a speech on the memorial service in honor of the deceased Alida Oosterveen, Aula of Delft University of Technology, 25 October 2000.
‘I worked at TU Delft at the time. As you may know, Alida Oosterveen was a famous alumna of TU Delft. Indeed, she still is the only Noble Prize winner of that university. Anyway, Joost Iddekinge was the dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, where I worked at that time. And you see, here…’ he pointed to the far left corner of the picture, at the bottom, to a back of a head. ‘This is me. I was 42 in that year, working as Associate Professor for Joost Iddekinge, and I was ordered to be present at that ceremony to fill an empty seat. Joost wanted the Aula to look fully packed because it would otherwise look bad on photographs. At the very last moment before the ceremony started, one of his assistants literally pulled me away from my desk to join the memorial service.’
The issue intrigued Lex, but he was by no means convinced. What interest could possibly be at stake, to take all the trouble to falsify the memory of a death of someone who was relevant to the scientific community, but not that world famous? The first time her death was reported in 2002, which is 23 years ago. That may seem a long period, but it is not that long ago. Quite a few people, who were alive at that time, were still around and would remember her and her earlier death, just like Seldon did.
‘Okay, let’s assume for a moment that Oosterveen died indeed in 2000. Does she have any children? Why do they stay silent? And how about former colleagues and friends? Why do they not speak up? Apparently, there is evidence of her earlier death, in this book and perhaps also in other written accounts, like newspapers. What about the period between 2000 and today: are there any public appearances or private pictures of her? Why don’t you raise your voice and show this book to the press? Is her biographer still alive? Surely this author …’
Seldon shook his head while biting the top of his index finger. They had reached a crossroads and Seldon decided to take the left path and Lex followed him.
‘I do not know why they forged the date of the death of a scientist. I have no clue. I do not even know who “they” are. But what I do know is that this has happened more than once. It seems, events, facts, maps, territories, dates and places are being rewritten.’
‘I am not sure…why people like you, who have proof that a news reports of an event or fact is incorrect, would not publish their evidence? There are more people of your age around.’
‘Remember, since some time, people do stand up against the mainstream news, but if they do, they are labeled as the lunatics of this world, Lex. In this instance, I have hard evidence in the form of a paper book. But most of the times I have to rely on my memory and no one would believe me, if my recollection of an event differs from the mainstream news. In most occasions, people surf the Internet to check facts, and – strangely – the electronic reports have all changed.’
‘Well, in this case you do have a book. Why don’t you publish that the current coverage of Alida Oosterveen is false?’
‘I have reasons to believe that no newspaper would print such a story, and if they did, it would attract the attention of people whom I surely prefer not to meet. I am convinced I am better off without their attention.’
‘Now you speak in riddles my friend’, Lex said.
‘It appears that they can now edit history, i.e. find all information on the Web containing certain content, take it off, edit it by means of Artificial Intelligence systems, and put it back. They took George Orwell’s “1984” as an instruction manual rather than a warning. I believe, they have started to make experiments with the public in order to see how far they can go.’
Seldon saw Lex shaking his head slowly but surely. Obviously, he did not believe a word.
‘I understand that you need time to accept all this. If you are open to it, I would like to share with you what I know – or at least what I think I know – of the world we are living in.’
Lex paused and watched his dog running. ‘You seem like a knowledgeable and smart person to me. I looked up your academic record and you have a solid reputation. But now you seem to draw me into a corner that I really do not like. You know, conspiracy theorists are not my favorite gang of people. They create their own conundrum, connecting a few dots and leaving out other events… Therefore, their theories can never be falsified. However, these are no theories that can stand scientific scrutiny, they are like astrology or mysticism: they evolve around their own principles and the facts in the outside world have no relation with their truths. That is my main objection against conspiracy theories.’ Lex even made the quotation mark with his hand in the air – a gesture he had never consciously made – to mark the fact that the word theory was not appropriate to describe this self-referential tangle of arguments, inferences and events.
‘It's surprising that the word "conspiracy theory" makes everyone stop thinking immediately – the opposite would be appropriate!’ Seldon objected. ‘In today's information age, governments cannot suppress secrets. They can only cover them up by obfuscation. Add some unlikely details to the story, exaggerate it, spread the opposite version, and a third and fourth version, and it will be so misleading and confusing that nobody can identify the grain of truth behind these stories anymore. What's worse, the contradictory stories make it impossible to talk about them without being ridiculed. People prefer to move out of the fog to see clearly, but when the fog gets thicker, you are getting closer to the truth and to the place where the power resides.’
Seldon started to bite his index finger again and Lex was afraid the fingertip would start bleeding soon.
‘Of course I know that a sensible, smart guy like you would not agree with me on this. In fact, I would have been disappointed if you would not have challenged me and go along with me on such issues immediately. Perhaps I can invite you to have an open mind and have a look at the jigsaw pieces I have gathered over the years. Once you have seen them, you decide. If you come to the conclusion that my ideas are the result of the imagination of an old confused professor, we stop our joint inquiry immediately.’
‘Joint inquiry? I thought you were helping me with my plant experiments and now you want me to be part of your world conspiracy team?’ Lex raised his voice.
‘Team…team, if two makes a crowd’, Seldon laughed. ‘You are right about the plants. I am interested in your experiments, sure, and I want to help as much as I can, as non-biologist. For me, the two topics are actually related. How I see it, your plant experiments could potentially help to build an alternative communication system and transcend the current non-fact society – I would even go so far to call it fake reality. But it is a long, long shot…’ Seldon looked into nowhere, with no focal point in particular.
‘So you want me to know the oddities and deviations of the world we live in, and you want me to go on a journey with you to rescue humanity?’ Lex mocked Seldon.
Either the professor did not notice the disdain, or he chose not to go into that. ‘All I ask is your open mind for a limited time. If you decide to quit our conversations, it is perfectly fine. No strings attached.’
‘I have to think about this’, Lex answered. This was yet another response that the course on human interaction had taught him. His inclination was to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ immediately, but often he regretted his initial response later on, finding himself in a job or relation he was not really happy with. The course explained to him that introverts like him needed some time to digest new situations.
Both Lex and Seldon kept silent for a while. Lex noticed that both dogs were out of sight.
‘Have you seen where they went?’ Lex asked.
‘I did not pay attention to them. Let’s continue our walk, they will certainly find us and catch up with us,’ Seldon answered.
Lex regretted he left his device at home. He would have activated the Splinter’s collar now and Splinter would be with his boss within seconds. The two continued to walk in silence and Lex was grateful for Seldon to let this silence grow.
‘Shall we make a second round in the park?’, Seldon suggested. They had completed a full round and the dogs had not returned yet. Lex nodded.
‘I do not say I am in, but I would like to share a few observations, for which I do not have an explanation either’, Lex broke the silence. He started his recollection of the photo session at the Rijksmuseum a few days ago.
‘So the group of world leaders, consisting of the same people and walking and standing in the same order and with identical gestures, wearing identical clothes, were in the news before you witnessed the actual event taking place?’ Seldon asked.
‘Apart from the color of the Chinese woman’s dress, yes, the events were indistinguishable.’
Seldon scratched his head. ‘You said one of the politicians stumbled?’
‘Did he spill a drink?’
‘This is true. Why are you asking?’
‘Maybe the scene has actually been recorded before and then holographically projected for the public? It is possible that they video-edited the recording to replace the spilled-over shirt?’ The use of holographic technology was quite common now, but he was not convinced. Why should they trick the public? He continued his story without a response and instead he told Seldon about the sudden price increase last week, both for meals and for the basic ingredients.
‘Aha. Is it fair to say that those meals and ingredients were typical for you. Do you always buy the same stuff?’
Lex did not know whether Seldon had a clue, or he was randomly asking questions. At the crossroads, they took the path on the right this time. Still no trace from the dogs. ‘They will be waiting for us where we started our walk,’ Seldon said, as if he guessed Lex’ thoughts.
‘Another irregularity that puzzles me are the mistakes of my SmartHouseProgram. A few months ago, it would never ever fail me. But now…Recently, I ordered coffee, instead it presented green tea. I gave the oral command to show the news with subtitles and it returned a voice over. These are all small things, but nevertheless it is weird. I instructed the News to present in the 2-dimensional mode and it switched to hologram mode – that type of faults,’ Lex summed up.
‘Hmm’, replied Seldon, ‘the only thing that comes to my mind is that the personalized pricing and the disobedient SmartHouseProgram may be punishing you.’
‘For a low SocialCitzenScore.’
Lex stared at Seldon with eyes wide open. ‘You believe computer algorithms are discriminating me? This is absurd!’ Some time later, however, he was not so sure anymore. He remembered the accident of the kid some days ago, which did not receive any medical aid.
They had reached the starting point of their walk and their two excited dogs were waiting for their bosses, wagging their tails. Hagar came up to her boss, but Splinter stayed where he was. Lex knew immediately that something was wrong.
‘I bet he has a special present for us, Seldon. This happens when I do not babysit my little hunter.’
Between Splinter’s forelegs laid something like a bloody rabbit. Traces of blood marked Splinter’s sprout and legs. Every now and then Splinter caught a rabbit, weasel or squirrel – remnants of his original purpose in life. Genetically, Splinter was trained to bring his prey to his boss and no matter how hard Lex tried; he could not change this habit. Splinter looked up to his boss, wagging its tail even more frantically in the hope to receive the praise of his boss or more.
‘Not again, will you. What did you catch this time?’
Lex pushed away his dog to have a better look at the prey. The animal was unfamiliar to Lex. It had the size of a small rabbit but its skin was not furry. It was smooth and naked, like a newborn hedgehog. The animal’s proportions were alienating. Half of the creature, or what was left of it after Splinter’s attempts to shred it, consisted of the body and four legs, and half of the size was its head. Lex studied it closer and saw that the mammal had a pair of wings with the size of its entire body. Lex looked up to beckon Seldon, but he had already approached Lex.
‘Boy, oh boy’, Seldon stammered.
‘Do you know what this is?’
‘I am afraid I do and I hope I am wrong.’
Out of one of his pockets of his old raincoat, Seldon took a weathered plastic bag and picked up the animal. He had to be careful not to spill any drops of the bloody parcel leaking on his clothes.
‘And now?’ Lex asked.
‘I have to go home and examine this creature. We will meet each other tomorrow, normal time. I owe you my report on yesterday’s homework – I may have got the beginning of our plant mobility solution.’ Seldon resumed their conversation as if they had not found this disturbing creature. ‘Good luck with your plant experiments – we will discuss your progress tomorrow. Keep up your good work!’
Lex could not think of anything else but Seldon’s invitation to investigate the world according to Seldon. Lex had always despised conspiracy theorists. They are lazy thinkers – believers really. They are not interested in alternative perspectives or explanations. They develop one theory and they fold the world events to match their worldview. In that way, they will never see what they do not want to see. Worse even: they do not even care. On the other hand, Seldon was credible for Lex.
When Lex presented his wrist-RFID to the central door of his apartment building, he already knew he would accept Seldon’s invitation for the joint investigation. His motivation was not to save humanity – he did not believe he could possibly be its savior. His reasons were more straightforward: he looked forward to go on an adventure and he liked the exchange with a sparring partner who was at least as intelligent as he was.
When he was almost at home, he discovered he had forgotten to take water from the pond for his plants. On the way back, he was continuously scanning for more creatures and he almost forgot the reason why he went back to the park. At the pond he took his jerrican, which he had carried on his back, and filled it with water.
He felt complete and whole again when he was reunited with his digital device. Immediately, he checked the news. The power outage was resolved. It had been a ‘system problem,’ whatever that means. He searched yesterday’s news on the Web and replayed it. To his great surprise, the color of the dress of the athletic woman had changed. This was really unbelievable. Was he already so confused? Then he remembered that he had actually recorded yesterday’s news. Instinctively, he disconnected his computer from the Internet and played the recording. Now, the dress was turquoise again, as he remembered! When he reconnected his computer with the Web and played the recording again, the color had changed! Amazing! When he investigated the file, he noticed that it had just been modified. The old file was overwritten by a new one, so his only piece of evidence was lost. Perhaps Seldon was right and something strange was going on in this country!
He walked nervously up and down his apartment and was about to call Seldon, until he remembered he was not supposed to do so. To calm himself down, he watered his plants. Then, he checked the delivery of tubes and other lab material he had ordered two days ago. It should have been there yesterday, but so far no sign of his stuff. He contacted the manufacturer and the company’s chatbot informed Lex that the order had been delivered 23 hours ago. It showed Lex’ digital fingerprint on the receipt. Lex took a deep breath and sighed. It would be a major hassle to prove that it had actually not been delivered. It was a company of good reputation, so he should be able to trust them. Who could have stolen his stuff and – even more seriously – his identity? For sure, his insurance would never cover the loss.
Lex was frustrated. Hoping for some better news, he said ‘next.’
Lex had a few missed messages during his walk with Seldon. Clients trying to get hold of him for their SmartHouseProgram problems. And a message from Diana, asking about his preferences or allergies for the meal tonight. Lex felt a tiny shock in his fingertips, the same sensation he experienced when his schoolmates scared him in the dark.
‘My preference is to have a healthy and tasteful meal, but most important is the company. No allergies.’ He erased the message before he sent it and tried at least ten variations.
‘No allergies or preferences. Look forward meeting you tonight. See ya @7.’
Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)