Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and
far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.
Frank Schubert—Nineteenth-Century Austrian composer.
Upon reaching the designated location for the hand-off, the string quartet of mu-bots, musical robots, stopped playing. In unison, the mu-bots brought their bows to their sides. Their tin-can faces turned toward the minister, and he bellowed with his deep-bass voice. “Who gives this woman to be married?”
“I do,” replied the father as he raised his elbow. He took one step back, turned, planted the walking cane, then lumbered to the closest pew. Upon sitting down, his wife wrapped an arm around his shoulder and leaned into him.
“I’m proud of you,” she whispered. She squeezed his arm, and her eyes sparkled. Then she leaned into him and kissed her “teddy bear,” as she called him, on the cheek. The proud parents then inhaled and looked forward. The father wiped his cheek.
Rebecca’s hands shook as they rested in George’s warm, comforting palms. A turtle dove drone zoomed in and framed the faces of the wedding couple. A sheer white veil partially covered Rebecca's face, the hem tickling her nose. Blond, curly tassels graced her shoulders, and broad smiles eclipsed the moment when a solitary tear crept down Rebecca’s right cheek. A camera-bot lowered itself toward the floor and zoomed in to capture the tear as it splashed onto the marble floor. Releasing her right hand, Rebecca wiped the wetness of her darkened pink blush. George’s left hand reached for a strand of golden hair and pushed it back. Then the two immediately rejoined hands, and George gently squeezed.
“Sorry,” Rebecca whimpered, with a smile. Her pearly whites glistened from the bright lights. Her ruby-red lips begged to be kissed, and her hazel eyes shouted, “I’m ready!”
“That’s okay. You’re beautiful,” George whispered, tightening his grip on her soft, slender hands.
“We are here today to join this man and woman in holy matrimony,” bellowed the preacher, in a baritone voice. “Do you, George Adams, take Rebecca Heart to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, through sickness or health, for richer or poorer, until death do you part?”
“Yes! Yes, I do. Of course, I do,” he replied, cracking a smile.
“And do you, Rebecca Heart, take George Adams, to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold for richer or poorer, in sickness or health until death do you part?”
“I do. I do. I do.” she echoed, increasing her pitch with each confirmation.
A guest yelled, “she does!” and everyone laughed. Then, guests wiped tears and nodded as if the minister were speaking to them.
The man of God scanned the room, nodded, then smiled. “By the powers vested in me by the State of California, I pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride.”
George’s hands quivered as he reached for Rebecca’s veil and raised it to reveal her dazzling hazel eyes. They were even more brilliant today, catching the colors from the stained-glass windows that surrounded the altar. Her smile was radiant, and tears pooled. As he leaned in for that once-in-a-lifetime, magical kiss, camera drones hovered in their prearranged rehearsal positions. It was as if time had stood still, or at least slowed down. Upon locking eyes, lips gently met, and emotions exploded into a kaleidoscope of colors. A dazzling array of fireworks followed lightning bolts.
Guests cheered as George bent Rebecca backward. His deep, passionate kiss gave Rebecca’s tummy somersaults. Laughs and whistles ensued. Then the guests applauded. Turtle dove drones zoomed in different directions, as if dancing, recording the guests’ reactions, and the newlywed’s steamy, romantic embrace. The new couple then straightened, Rebecca silently mouthed, wow, and then blinked. Once again, guests cheered, and the newlyweds responded with a child-like hand wave.
“I present to you, Mr. George Adams, and Mrs. Rebecca Heart-Adams,” bellowed the minister as he raised a hand to the ceiling.
Upon hearing those words, the four mu-bots played “Viva La Vida.” Their skinny arms swung wide to produce the perfect music for the occasion. Rebecca placed two hands together and made a heart. She displayed her hand-heart to her guests, moving her hands left to right, with what energy remained.
Barbara, her matron of honor and George’s sister, passed the bouquet back to Rebecca, while attendants helped shape her long train. The bride and groom joyfully stepped down the short flight of stairs and walked, hand in hand, down the aisle, led by the turtle dove drones. Rebecca reasoned these drones were better than real turtle doves inside a church. Guests would never complain about white stains on their clothes.
A burst of warm air rushed around everyone as they exited the church doors. Turtle dove drones flashed their lights while capturing the magical moment on video. The drones tweeted high-pitched whistles, celebrating the monumental event. Within moments, more guests, and the mu-bots, exited the church. Friends and family clapped and cheered as they circled the bride and groom. Everyone hugged and laughed.
“Congratulations, man,” a guest remarked, fist-bumping George and slapping his broad shoulder.
“Another kiss,” a young girl pleaded.
Laughter and cheers followed. Rebecca and George locked eyes, then lips.
“Aw,” a friend cooed, clasping her hands as if praying. She then exclaimed, “Your bouquet!”
Rebecca nodded, took a few steps backward, and waved her hands as if to corral the contenders for a prize. The single women chose their positions. “Ready?” she asked, turning her back.
“Yes!” was the unanimous response.
Rebecca grew a huge smile, and a turtle dove drone captured the moment. With her back turned, she tossed the bouquet over her head, and women scrambled as if they were in a football game. Two ladies simultaneously grabbed the flowers. They brought it down, studied each other’s eyes, then the older woman released the arrangement to the younger lady. The crowd cheered.
The mu-bots began to perform “Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G,” as people cried and hugged one another. Dale, a medical doctor, embraced his wife, Barbara.
A single violin screeched, the pitch pierced ears, and the music abruptly stopped. The lead mu-bot lifted its head, and the quartet played the opening notes to ZuZu’s apocalyptic “Dark Stars.”
Someone shouted, “Hey, that’s not appropriate!”
One man cried, “What the heck!”
Suddenly, the lead mu-violinist swung its instrument, catching a guest’s throat in the C Bout. The mu-bot snapped its wrist, and the guest gurgled blood. As the man’s knees hit the stone, the mu-bot turned to the next victim.
The violist flung its wrist, whipping its bow. The crowd gasped and stepped back as the bow swished through the air. Then the bot lurched forward with the bow’s point and jabbed a guest’s eye. Rebecca’s childhood friend clasped her face as the violinist jerked back the bow, and with a sideways swing, sliced her neck.
People screamed, and Dale raced with hands outstretched toward the violist. Before reaching the bot, the backside of a cello pounded his chest. Dale’s eyes popped, and air escaped his lungs. His body slammed into the stone slab with a loud thud, and Barbara screamed.
The mu-bots attacked one person after another, showing no mercy. In one metal-hand they held their sword-like bow, in the other hand was their club-like musical instrument.
Chaos followed as fighting erupted. Several people called cop-bots at 9-1-1. The drone turtle doves attacked the crowd. One drone zoomed from the sky, as if it were a kamikaze pilot, smashing into Rebecca’s neck. Blood gushed and her knees collapsed. As the fighting continued, cop-bots approached.
George knelt beside his new bride, lifted her bloody neck, and cried, “Rebecca! Rebecca!”
* * *
—Virginia. One hour south of Washington, D.C.—
The train continued its rhythmic sway as its wheels clapped over the cold metal rails. Fortunately, the party’s theme song—piped through the intercom—dampened the monotonous clickety-clack noise. Standing tall at five-foot, four-inches, with shoulders back, Congresswoman Maria Sanchez inhaled the faint scent of peppermint and mouthed the words to the patriotic song that permeated the cabin:
Arise, arise, for we are not slaves
With flesh and blood, we shall build the new world
Equality and compassion for all
No borders or walls shall constrain us
Arise, arise, now is our time.
An attendant, wearing a shiny, black leather skirt, and white, ruffled blouse, served drink orders. Maria smiled at the sight of the porter’s skirt, which was so short, it barely covered her cheeks, but as all the other porters wore the same uniform, it seemed appropriate. This service, she acknowledged, was one of the privileges of being in Congress. Of course, not to discriminate, male servers wore the same black-leather uniform, and like the female version, those, too, barely covered their behinds.
Walking through the red-carpet aisleway, Maria shifted her body sideways, maneuvering around a male attendant who was bent over while serving a drink to one of the VIPs. The black tuxedo-like uniform appeared elegant, and the porter displayed his professional training by draping a white cloth over his forearm. Careful not to jostle the attendant who was serving what appeared to be hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps to one of the VIPs, Maria stepped forward and glanced at the porter’s long ponytail. All the porters, male and female, wore wig-like red, white, and blue ponytails as it was the patriotic thing to do. Shuffling her feet and taking a few steps forward, Maria smiled, nodded, and waved to her fellow congressional leaders.
Ms. Sanchez paused, leaned forward, then peered out one of the frosted window panes to inhale the fall colors. A smile grew on her face as she glimpsed the collage. Red, yellow, and orange-colored leaves clung to branches, rejoicing in autumn. She straightened up and pushed her raven hair back behind her ears. Ms. Sanchez hoped the early signs of aging—graying—didn’t show, and with one quick tug on her dark-blue suit jacket, she thwarted a slight shiver. Taking a few steps forward, she spied Senator Carlson, seated at the bulkhead, and her heart beat faster. Finally, she said to herself. Quickening her pace, she twirled on her toes, pulling herself around to the beige vinyl chair to face her hero. Patting the shiny material, she asked, “Is this seat taken, Senator?”
Removing wire-framed rectangular shaped glasses that sat at the end of his crooked nose, the Senator remarked with a smile, “Maria. So glad to see you. Please, please sit down,” he gestured.
Congresswoman Sanchez sat on the expansive cushioned seat, faced the Senator, and extended her hand. Silver ornamental jewelry, signifying her political party loyalty, dangled from her wrist.
Carlson placed a hand over his heart and remarked, “For the politique.”
The congresswoman followed his gesture and bowed her head.
“Maria, I'm glad you rearranged your schedule to be with us on our congressional retreat,” Senator Carlson remarked, reaching for her soft hand, and smiling to emphasize his comradery. His head turned as he reached for a brown satchel. Setting the bag on his lap, he pressed the electronic palm-lock. Reading his prints and recording his calm heart rate and warm body temperature, lights at the tips of each finger turned from red to green, and the lock snapped open with a loud click.
“I understand there is urgency, Senator, and I am pleased to help support your bill,” Maria expressed, pushing back in her seat and pulling the sides of her jacket. “What I know of it, that is.”
“Well, it is not a bill, at least not yet,” he said, opening his bag to pull out an ebinder.
The train's whistle blared. Two long toots cracked the chilled air.
“Ah, we're slowing down because of a traffic intersection, I suppose. I’ll be glad when we’re at the retreat.” He peered out the window and observed the slower speed of the train. The Senator turned his head, glanced down, swiped the ebinder, and fanned through several pages of the document before resting his finger. Looking back up, he said, “I'm afraid, Maria, we are facing the greatest threat ever to our nation.”
Red lights pulsed into the VIP’s cabin from the approaching railroad crossbuck. Carlson scarcely noticed the higher pitch clangs of the bell as he stared at the lights on the crossing gates. Half smiling, he nodded to the blocked traffic, knowing the crossing gates protected the train.
The train's sideways rocking slowed, and Maria glanced out the window to view the gridlock. Looking back to the Senator, she asked, “How so?”
“There is a movement, Maria, it is gaining ground. A digital dictatorship—of sorts,” he paused. “It is what social media and Silicon Valley companies are doing with the data they have collected. Citizens are confused. They don’t know who or what to trust or believe. The respect for those in Congress is at an all-time low. Cockroaches have a higher rating than Congress, and many are demanding massive changes. Because of the internet, some say there is no need for Congress. There is even a push for direct participation of government, similar to Switzerland’s.”
“Yes. Direct democracy, enabled by blockchain. People call it blockchain democracy.”
“What a laugh, Senator. It will never happen. Besides, my constituents love me, and I love them.”
“Yes, I know, and we are glad you’re with our party. You have a huge Chirper following. But I’m sure you’ve seen on your viewer (cell phone-like glasses), several high-ranking executives from tech companies asked us, Congress, to regulate data collection and data mining. These executives are the heads of transnational companies. Many of these companies have a market capital value greater than the GDP of some countries. And because of what they do, they globally control the public’s perception of everything.”
“Yes, but I don’t know what to make of it, Senator. I mean, part of me wants to think this is a publicity stunt. Since when do business leaders from private sector companies ask the government to clamp down on themselves and their competitors? Especially since these companies aren’t breaking any laws. At least none I am aware of.”
“Maria, you and I are too young to remember this, but back in the early 1900s, the Standard Oil Company violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.”
“I hate the oil companies, Senator. Personally, I wish all the oil companies would disappear. Global climate change, you realize. We probably only have twelve years to live.”
“My point, Maria, isn’t about oil, though. It is about abusing the public.”
“Yes. Oil companies abused the public. Absolutely,” she nodded. “Plastics in the oceans and greenhouse gasses into the air we breathe.”
The train’s engine tooted again, and the Senator peered through the frosted window. He sighed, then turned his head down to review his document. “Maria,” he continued, looking up and locking eyes to get her attention, “what we’re talking about in this document is how to save the republic. It is serious.”
Maria pushed herself back in her seat. Her thoughts were about saving the world, not the republic. Hearing the words, “Saving the republic,” threw her for a loop. She frowned and responded, “Oh?”
“For quite some time, Maria, the social media and tech companies have performed stealth surveillance on the population. A decade or so ago, an esteemed Harvard professor coined the term, ‘Surveillance Capitalism.’ But what started as a capitalistic exploit morphed into political surveillance. When the masses weren’t looking, the tech barons popped over a trillion dollars in wealth as they sold the information they had collected to the highest international-government bidder.”
“Of course, Senator. As a member of the intelligence committee, that is why we didn’t need section 215 of the Patriot Act.” Maria nodded. She wasn’t sure if Senator Carson was trying to give her a history lesson. Much of what he said, she already knew from being on the house intelligence committee.
“Well, people in the know—academia and those working in high-tech—raised alarms by speaking and writing books. But the majority of the public never suspected, every move they made, every chirp chirped, every word they spoke into a Listener was captured, stored, and analyzed. Until the revelation these companies began to manipulate the population, not just on what products to buy, but how to behave, what social programs to support, and who to vote for. Companies like Massachusetts Analytica employed behavioral scientists to turn clicks into votes. To a large extent, companies like these and not the public decide who will serve in Congress and who will be president.”
“How so? People vote, not companies. Even though the US Supreme Court ruled companies are people—but that is another subject,” she sighed.
“Yes, it is a different subject.” The Senator closed his eyes and thought how best to explain the dire situation to his colleague. “Today, these companies control what people see on their viewers. They control information by hiding some things and slanting other things. From fake news to fake videos, truth is not what the public thinks it is.”
The Senator leaned into Maria and said, “Let me tell you something that maybe I shouldn’t. I’m afraid, Maria, there is a faction within this country, they are working day and night to overthrow the government. They call themselves the Friends of Liberty.”
“Why haven’t I been informed about this?”
“You’re not part of the Gang of Eight.” He blinked his eyes, pausing if he should continue. “I have communication sent to the President.” The Senator punched in a code on his ebinder. Upon pressing enter, the screen displayed: TOP SECRET. Senator Carlson adjusted his glasses and read.
This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty.
The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot.
The president has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism,
but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution,
unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party,
band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.
“It sounds like subversion and a threat to the President,” Maria said.
“It is, and Senator Henry D. Hatfield wrote this.”
“Agents from the Federal Investigation Bureau should arrest him and charge this criminal with treason. Strange. Who is this revolutionist? What state does he represent?”
“He doesn’t. He’s dead. Senator Hatfield wrote that in 1933, and he died in 1962.” Carlson patted the air seeing Maria’s reaction. “Now I know this doesn’t make sense, because again, you’re not part of the Gang of Eight. But let me say, in 1933, there were several people—business, congressional, and military leaders—who believed President Roosevelt was turning the capitalist nation socialist. They were enraged, and they pushed the value of people to work and encouraged people to get rich. One of those leaders was Senator Hatfield.”
Maria crossed her arms, squinted her eyes, and shrugged. “So? So, what? What can, or maybe I should say, should be done? Why should anyone fight a ghost from 1933?”
“Well, what angered the Friends of Liberty in 1933 is the same thing we are battling today. My proposal, Maria,” he replied, tapping his ebinder. “My proposal will create a government-controlled social media and search engine.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Well. This proposal, bill, and eventually law—once the President signs it—creates a public social media and search platform. We’ll replace FaceChapter, Chirper, and Coogly.
Maria’s eyebrows raised, and an awkward smile grew on her face.
“No more surveillance capitalism. Hell,” he huffed, “everyone knows capitalism, in the age of technology, simply doesn’t work.” The Senator shifted his body and exhaled. “We will create a national utility. A utility similar to what garbage, gas, and electricity are today. This utility will be open to everyone, and it will be tax-free. Whereas, we will increase the taxes on private social media corporations.”
“Interesting idea, Senator, but...”
“NSM,” the Senator interrupted. “National Social Media is the name we believe will stick with the citizens. Our tag line,” he leaned toward Maria. “NSM, where diversity of ideas is our strength.”
Maria paused and thought about his proposal. While there was merit to it, being on the house intelligence committee gave her a window into government functions. She remembered a vice president of ages ago, Al Gore, once said, “Surveillance technologies now available—including the monitoring of virtually all digital information—have advanced to the point where much of the essential apparatus of a police state is already in place.” Since we can’t reverse our inventions, the question is, who is best to be in charge of this technology? Certainly, China has used it effectively on its citizens. But why are technology companies asking for the government’s help?
The Senator contemplated Maria’s puzzled face and decided it was safe to add to his ideas. “For you see, they—”
A loud thud jolted everyone from their seats. The sound was like that of mud thrown at windows. Indeed, clay-colored mud had stuck to several glass panes at the rear of the cabin. The mud seemed to form an immense circle, encompassing both the top and bottom of two windows. Startled, Congresswoman Sanchez and Senator Carlson stepped into the aisleway.
The train car rattled and tilted to the right as an explosion lifted its iron wheels from the rails. Screams and shouts pierced the air as glass shattered into the cabin. Congressional leaders scrambled in different directions, some with cuts on their faces. Many yelled, cried, and screamed. A gush of chilled air raced in as everyone ran to the other end of the car where Maria and the Senator stood. While some people hid behind seats, others strangled the seat’s back. Within moments, thirty senators and congressional leaders, as well as a handful of porters, huddled at the far end of the coach car. The train continued its clickety-clack, and two long toots rang from Amtrak's electric engine.
Capital Security Detail personnel banged on the gangway connection behind the congressional leaders. “Let us in!” a burly man yelled.
Maria stretched for the corridor handle and shouted at the rectangular, glass porthole, as two officials raised their pistols.
One man banged on the shatterproof glass with his gun, and he howled, “Open up!”
Maria pulled on the handle, but it was to no avail.
Wailing prompted Maria to turn around. While some cried, a few bled, and others helped the injured, Senator Carlson pushed his way through the crowd.
He walked toward the shattered windows, stepped on glass, and remarked, “What in the—” Before he finished, buzzing sounds vibrated the carriage walls, and everyone's eyes turned to the blast holes.
A swarm of flying bots, each the size of a tiny hummingbird, entered through the broken windows and hovered. The enormous number of bots amplified the buzzing of their propellers, and they created a formation of two levels, suspended inches from each other. Their bodies twisted and their propellers tilted as facial recognition technology began its magic, matching the bot's instructions.
One bot broke the formation, making a bee-line to Senator Carlson’s forehead. The bot detonated, the senator’s knees buckled, and he fell facedown onto the aisle walkway. A high-pitched scream pierced the air. Then more screams filled the carriage, as one by one, bots departed from their formation, slamming and exploding into predetermined heads. With skulls split and blood gushing, bodies slumped over a chair or fell to the floor.
One Congressman elbowed a porter, forcing the petite lady to shield him. The agile bot zoomed around the porter, then detonated into the Congressman’s head. The porter turned to watch the congressional leader fall. Her scream magnified when an explosion punctured the skull of another congresswoman. The congresswoman’s knees buckled, and she collapsed to the floor before uttering a cry. One man shoved Maria aside, and she fell onto the seat. He grunted and jerked on the gangway handle three times. Hearing a propeller close to him, he ducked and maneuvered his head as if avoiding a hornet. The agile bot tilted vertically and exploded as it kissed his ear. His body slumped to the floor in front of Maria, and she screamed. Maria’s head snapped back to the porthole. Her hand clamped onto her mouth as she witnessed organs drip from the bloodied rectangle to the rubber mat.
The Capital Security Guards fired their guns through the obscured, blood covered, gangway, and yanked again. The door cracked open. Enough to get an arm or leg in, but they still couldn't push the plug. In despair, they fired through the porthole as they helplessly witnessed the assassination of one congressional leader after another.
Maria slid to the floor, crawled, and yanked on the jacket of a dead man. With a heave, she and the body rolled under the seat. She scooted herself as much as possible toward the bulkhead and wrenched the man’s jacket with all her might. The blood-soaked collar pushed her nose sideways, leaving one nostril open. Her stomach churned at the smell, and her lips sealed, ensuring not even a squeak. She clamped her eyes closed, and her toes curled, daring not to look at the remains of the man’s exposed brain, as she felt blood drizzle over her fingers. Her body shook upon hearing a bot buzz. More gunshots rang. The carriage door opened with an explosion, air gushed in, and security personnel emptied their magazine clips, shooting at anything flying. Maria froze like a statue and prayed while wrapping the jacket tighter in her fists. The seat, the wall, and the man’s body blocked the light from the setting sun.
“It’s a head-bot!” One guard screeched.
Another man jumped into the air to catch a bot. The killing machine tumble-rolled, and in a spiral fall, hit the trigger finger of one of the security guards. His gun fired, and a bullet struck the ear of a porter. Blood splattered on her ponytail, and the bot slammed into the front wall, the impact crushing its propellers, and it slid to the floor. The porter grabbed her ear, leaned into a chair, and wailed.
Three guards held their guns in the air, pointing and freezing in different directions. Their eyes widened as they checked for additional bots. There was only silence—no buzzing. No screaming. Scanning the car, a guard performed a quick count. One porter dead from a bullet and twenty-nine congressional leaders fatally wounded from head explosions.
With its propellers broken, the crippled bot twisted what was remaining of its arms and crawled its way underneath the seat. The guards turned their heads when they heard a faint click sound. It was a sound like a grandfather clock could make, or a time-bomb might make.
“What’s that noise, and where is it?” a guard screamed as he swung his pistol.
Maria heard the clicks. Her heart beat faster, and her stomach rose to her throat. With what strength she had left, Maria pulled the man’s jacket closer. Tears dripped off her cheek and nose. The damaged head-bot twisted and limped toward its target—the back of Maria's head. Accompanying each crippled arm movement was a click.