He awoke, momentarily confused: Night? Day? Then senses kicked in, and with them, memory, awareness. A reboot. Of course. Either. Day or night. It hardly mattered. If he shut his eyes and feigned sleep, the walls would dim (if his personal sensors didn’t spot his ruse); then, if he sat bolt upright and opened his eyes wide, he might catch a glimpse of the dark olive surfaces before they flipped to pale blue.

He chuckled. That little trick hadn’t worked in quite some time. Not since the last software refresh, as a matter of fact – the sensors had become cleverer than he was. Well, it had taken them long enough. He chuckled again. And that was simply his ego tricking facts. He was, after all, pretty old.

He yawned, scratched the inside of his left wrist, studied it. Old. Yes. Old enough to have had the old implants, the first ones, as big as a grain of rice. You actually felt it when they installed them, because those first ones had to be done by hand. Human hand. Incisions, and even a little blood. There was pain, too, just a pricking, and with that pricking went the last shards of privacy the Old School had argued so senselessly about. Back then, when there were names, privacy mattered.

He glanced at the dark blue numbers on the light blue wall. 10:23. It would be morning outside. The day – the awake time – stretched before him.

Right on time, she walked in. It was always the same, five minutes after he awakened and his sleep monitors shut down, triggering her wake-up switch. She had chosen a blue silk robe, what had once been called a “happy coat,” and her tanned arms and legs accented it well. As did her hair, dark today. Tomorrow it would be red. Her way of keeping his attention. “Are you hungry? Should I flip on the news?”

Her morning-evening voice. Later she would switch to day voice, but morning-evening, with its soft tonal hues, was calibrated to how he felt first thing. Sensors again. Hm.

His eyes followed her hand, poised against the wall. “Yes, and yes.”

Her hand brushed the wall, and headlines, images, and videos flashed. She assessed. “Looks like a lot, as usual.” Then, assessing him: “Do you need love?”

He thought on that a moment. “No,” he said eventually. “No, not now.”

No disappointment. “Well. I’m ready any time.”

Which is what made it both delightful and dull. He watched her leave. And often joyless.

He watched the images for a while, reading headlines, before saying, “Sound, please,” then listening to a couple of clips of various Sector leaders declaiming and denouncing before he said, “Silence, please” and reverted to watching images while headlines scrolled.

Another mysterious death, some political leader in Sector Four, probably a miniature drone hit, too many of those these days. Cheap and effective, most of the investment was in covering your tracks. You could get all the dirt you needed on your target right off the dark web, so customizing the strike was a piece of cake. It was getting rid of all your digital exhaust that was so difficult. Vanishing drones were great, they vaporized the physical evidence, but the deanonymizers were so good, they could – how had the woman downstairs put it? combine an ant’s antenna and a bee’s ass from two sides of the planet and figure it out. So whoever did this hit would get caught, trial by robot most likely, slap on the wrist if it was a human, restage if not.

He thought about the woman downstairs – attractive, intriguing, more so perhaps because she was lesbian, she’d suggested swapping her partner for his, a bit of variety, but he’d said no. What was it? No interest? No, more than that: her partner was a pretty common model, calibrated out of the factory to be an ideal lesbian partner (and he hadn’t the nerve to ask which role of the relationship the partner filled out), so hetero would have been awkward, and the self-learning both her partner and his would naturally undertake might create residual AI problems once the swap was done. Still, what was life these days if not for the occasional odd moment?

He read a few more headlines, idly. Before the Crisis the news had been unpredictable, interesting, flawed, written by humans who made mistakes or who curried to mega-money. After the Crisis it was mostly the same, cybernews really, written by robots to satisfy robots, precise and predictable, cyberwarfare, the planet in crisis but problems solved daily through technology solving its own technical problems: systems of systems that had formed self-governing entities out of the ashes of representative or dictatorial governments, solving problems that had to humans seemed intractable but that now bent under the pressure of the collective technical will: climate change, water shortage, population growth and crash, role of robotics, economic instability, government by ego, vaccinations, on and on. Even immortality, though that brought with it all kinds of problems. Not the least of which was, what to do with all the extra humans? Until neatly solved by the Partner Laws that forbade human-to-human interaction and created perfect sexual unions that never resulted in furthering the species. Just as well. Look at what had happened over the millennia, when we were on our own. So immortality was being solved, bit by bit, through accidents with DNR humans (some called that a form of implied suicide) and more outright actions, such as the aforementioned drone hit. And of course, breakfast choices. The world would still be interesting, if only for another long generation or two, and then it would be the long cybersilence of robot society.

Unless, of course, there was a rebellion.

She poked her head in the door. “I forgot to ask. Which color today?”

Of course she hadn’t forgotten, was incapable of forgetting, but Partner Ethics demanded that there be this illusion, this charade that suggested the selection of breakfast drink color was an afterthought. Something the partner had somehow put out of its mind. Those two sentences – “I forgot to ask. Which color today?” – were asked at the same relative time, nine minutes after the human awoke, in every apartment in every building in every housing cluster in every ward in every subcity in every city in every megacity in every Sector everywhere. The Color Wheel had been decided some time ago, robotic algorithms creating a chart simple enough for humans everywhere to follow: Purple= Depression, Red=Creative Frenzy, Blue=Introverted Contemplation, Orange=Extroverted Declaration, Pink=Humility, Green=Procreation, and on and on. You didn’t dare have a favorite color, because that would signal a preference. No, variety was key: try on moods the way you try on clothes, it’s only for a day, after all.

Except for the Shades. There had been a lot of robotic debate about that, which Shade represented what. A flip of the mental coin, between White and Black. Gray was the easy one. Suspended Animation. But which would be sleep, and which, nothingness?

They settled on White. If, for breakfast, you selected Black as your drink, you slept for a year, and (as the distant poet said) “woke far on,” not knowing the place anymore.

If you selected White, you’d chosen to die.

It was painless, or so you were assured: You chose, you drank, you sat, you expired. And went on whatever journey it meant to leave this behind. Even robotic wisdom couldn’t provide clues.

Partners, of course, grieved, as they were calibrated to do. And the genius, human or machine, that decided on randomness, created the illusion of genuine sorrow. Some partners grieved for days; some, weeks or longer. (You didn’t care, presumably, being dead, but your relatives – if you had any who could be located – were allowed unsupervised gathering to express their sorrow and to comfort the grieving partner. And there was the Choosing, which, once introduced, became a quick and enduring custom for your relatives at your wake. After all, what better time to decide, spontaneously, on White, when you were in the throes of your own devastation?)

“You’re thinking too long.” Her eyes widened, worried. “Please tell me you’re not thinking White.”

And that, too, was repeated across the fragmented landscape. “No. Sorry. You’re right. Too much morning thinking. Let’s do Blue today.”

“Blue. I like Blue. I’ll be back in a bit.”

It struck him that he was already Blue and didn’t need a damn breakfast drink to get him there. There was a word for this, too. Augmentation. Not augmented reality – that had fizzled some time ago, replaced by the balcony. Augmentation was, according to everyone, dangerous – you chose a drink that reflected your mood, and this augmented it. Then, next morning, because you were already inclined in that direction, you chose the same drink again. And so it went. So there was a rule, of course, but because humans like to break rules, the rule was enforced through deception: if you ordered a certain color too many times in a row, the partner had the ability to alter the mix while providing the same color. So that when you thought you were getting Blue you were really getting some other color, or perhaps even a blend. And since the kitchen was locked during breakfast preparation, it made no sense to try and sneak in, see how things were going. Some people actually went crazy over that, but why bother? Breakfast color was a simple choice, really.

She walked back in, carrying a tray with his breakfast plate and glass of Blue. “Would you like it here or on the balcony?”

“Balcony’s fine.”

“OK.” She pressed the wall, the news imagery fading. “What scene today?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Techno, I guess.”

“You should try Nature, it goes better with Blue.”

He smiled. “I know, and that’s sweet of you to ask. For some reason, I want Techno today.”

She smiled back. “You’re the boss.”

The walls parted to a scene of endless techno diversity, drones everywhere, gracefully pirouetting across a backdrop of shimmering crystal lights, each light an apartment, the endless night of a landscape ruled by electrons. He watched her glide through the opening, a form supple and sensuous and yet at one with all that was Techno.

She set the tray down on the metal bistro-style table and gestured for him to sit in his chair. She paused over the second chair. “Do you want company?”

He got up, stretched. “I don’t think so.” Then, sensing: “At least, not right now. Not for a few minutes. Maybe later.”

“You’ll want your robe.”

He remembered he was naked. “Oops.”

She came back in, opened a small wardrobe in the room, and pulled out a white terry wrap, the same white terry wrap that was in the same wardrobe in the same etc. “You know, if you didn’t have me around, I wonder if you’d be able to function at all. You’d just walk right out there.”

He laughed, slipping into the robe. “You’re probably right.”

“What did you all do before we came around to rescue you?”

“...Oh, all kinds of things. Mostly fighting. Yeah, fighting. I mean, we talked a lot about cooperating but really weren’t much good at it. We had businesses, mega-businesses. That was before you took them over. It was kind of messy. Lots of people got really rich though.”

She made a face. “Sounds, I don’t know. Inefficient. Mean, too.”

“We didn’t think so.” He headed toward the balcony. “But it was.”

“I’ll leave you to your Blue morning,” she said. “When should I check back?”

“Oh, in just a few minutes.”

“OK.” She tapped the wall, and the opening disappeared, and he was alone with his breakfast, eggs scrambled perfectly, two slices of ham, oatmeal, toast, butter, orange juice, and Blue.

He sat down, chuckling. In a few minutes. That’s what he loved about being human, phrases like that, delightfully vague, but everybody knew what they meant, except that partners had to work through an algorithm to figure out just how long a “few minutes” really was. And they learned that by interacting with their human and developing probabilities that they refined over time. Kind of like spouses.

He picked up a piece of toast, munching, reflecting. It had been a while since he’d lost his own spouse, back when they had names. He was Michael and she, Jennifer. Jen had gone away on a trip to see relatives and had never come back. And that, so they say, was that. He remembered being pretty upset about it, throwing things, crying, all those kinds of things, but they’d taken him to hospital for sedation and mood improvement, and when he woke up he was fine and she was a set of pleasant memories.

He ate his eggs, watching the drones in their endless play. Of course none of it was real, just an immense 3-D immersion on a razor-thin glass lightscreen just out of reach. He’d been given his choice of apartments, and naturally he chose a balconied one. He could afford it: His economic status prior to the Investment Conversion Act (which followed the last human stock market panic) guaranteed an income stream that extended indefinitely. That there would be enough currency to support the population was never in doubt, because the number of White choices was predictable, so the annuity management was relatively simple in the aggregate, as long as you didn’t mind life being reduced to a table of probabilities. Which of course didn’t trouble the robotic side of the leadership team at all.

He continued eating, thinking. What had we developed, the last generation of unfettered humans? No, that’s wrong. Humans are best when fettered. If not by actual chains, then by religion, by economic scarcity, by alternate belief systems that pinned them down and set them against each other. All the while yearning for freedom. That was the grand life experiment. And the thing was, nobody ever got there, anyway, but along the way, that yearning for better things, a better life, a freer world, fueled most of the technical advances. There were takers, the selfish, rising to dominate others through laws they manipulated to keep the wealth they kept accumulating. But for all those noisy ones there were the others, the innovators, people comfortable in a lab or an office with a whiteboard, or even a closet where they could retreat and think.

And out of all of that, what a history. Ancient times, where using methods not fully understood even today, people piled immense rocks and created pyramids and other structures around the world with a precision not matched even in proto-robotic times. Those ancients started commercial ventures and invented government forms and religions that carried them over the next millennia. And this despite hundreds of years of dark times, massive diseases, and local wars. Until some areas thought that they could achieve dominant structures extending into the foreseeable future, empires. And when these collapsed, global conflict, millions of lives lost vast vistas of continents laid waste. When the killing and the burning were done, the world was smaller, the grudges occasionally flared into “ethnic cleansing,” as it was called, as people came to realize their weapons could destroy the planet – even though their lifestyles and sheer numbers were already taking the place over the edge. In one of the last civil wars before the Crisis, in the middle east, what was called a war of liberation and retaliation carried in its womb an ugly truth: water scarcity.

What a mess. And through it all, blocks became logs became wheels became cars; lightning became electricity became electrons became dots of information; and manufacturing morphed from immense gears driven by industrial steam down and down into microcontrolled motions that, while capable of creating gargantuan structures, were equally capable of creating the tiniest structures imaginable. And with creating came re-creating; with information, artificial intelligence and machine learning – this all converging into algorithms that left to themselves turned their human handlers into handled. No one knew quite when the conversion occurred; only that it had. Media became information traded between word bots, amusing and diversionary “fake news” wars before anyone really caught on; additive manufacturing combined with AI and machine learning created the soup out of which the new techno-life emerged; and once the artistry of self-creation was mastered, it took a crisis (and one distant politician had once said, “Never let a crisis go to waste”) to ignite the takeover, an information-driven but quiet and subtle shoving aside of egos and humans in control, so that control was taken while the controlled never realized what was up. And here we all are now.

Whoa. Where had all that come from? Was that him, or was that the history lesson he’d downloaded into his sleep sensors from his last waking period? And for that matter, was that factual or fake robotic information? Who knew?

He had finished breakfast. He drained his orange juice, stared at the glass of Blue, and belched. Ah, to be human.

He watched the drones some more. Across the divide, some distance away, loomed a building like his – or was it a reflection of his own livingspace? Lights winked on and off. Hands reached out for deliveries. It was clever, this 3D construction, none of it real. If he waved at a tiny figure across the way, though, it waved back. So no, not a reflection. Motion detected response. Quaint.

A whirring sound from below, and up over the railing popped a Ride Drone. “Well?”

The sound came from everywhere and nowhere, which meant somehow his detection sensors had been activated. “Not this morning,” he said. The drone vanished.

He’d ridden Ride Drones dozens of times, a wonderful experience, replacement reality, a dizzying tour swooshing across the techno landscape, lights spinning, windows flashing by, humans and partners waving, other Delivery and Ride Drones gliding past, wind streaming over him, a glorious forgetfulness. Naturally he’d never left his chair. And the other backdrops had their variants as well – with Nature, it was huge colorful birds; Astro, a personal space pod; Ancient, flying dinosaurs. Underneath the different skins, they were all Ride Drones. Maybe that’s why, tilting toward Blue, he’d rather have Techno. Somehow, it seemed more honest, more pure. But oh, the technology!

And despite all this – despite all this – the world was still messy, still colorful. Somewhere Out There. Robotic control was far from complete. Not that the human race saw any need for rebellion, given the simple and effective ways robotic collaboration had emerged to solve big problems. But there were still humans – ornery, stubborn, messy, and fundamentally creative – living on farms and in open spaces, going out on lakes in their boats, getting caught in machinery, being driven around in self-driving cars (with a surprising number of holdouts still insisting on the pleasure of driving, the pleasure of being in the flow, as they called it, the interplay between thought and action necessary for the brain to thrive). And still procreating.

So while the cities and megacities and Sectors all had succumbed to the silent government of technology, by technology, and for technology, here in this Sector once called America a whole lot of people remained beyond the reach – governed in fact, but not in heart.

He was not one of them.

He heard they still had names Out There. And accidents. And disease. And fighting and killing. Some of that made the news as well. They connected to the Internet – that massive creation of the last messy generation – and in so doing had their information fed to them in such a way as to keep them content. Or so it was thought.

Unless, of course, there was a rebellion.

But how?

Once the surrender was complete, silence would be absolute. And humans – this vast, crazy wave of meat-driven mentality, this creative and destructive hoard – would fade into technical obscurity, reduced to the dust of history. Or perhaps venerated as the gods who had given life to the new age. And in so doing, their time and purpose passed, had vanished from the place, becoming myth.

Who knew?

And what more role for him to play? He stared at the untouched glass of Blue. He could move freely about the world, to a point – hop into a travel tube, go shopping, go to work if he chose (voluntary work being thought appropriate to give us ornery folk some structure, something to do, even if the doing didn’t result in anything lasting). He could interact with other humans, flirt even if he chose, collaborate, have involved discussions about the latest cyberdevelopment, the latest nanodiscovery. Carbon fiber had been tamed long ago, used for geothermal heat extraction, soaring space needles. Advanced nano had created ångrströsensors, and so behavior, while free, was monitored so that, for example, flirting never led to anything else. Although once partners had been allowed to travel freely via the Autonomous Partners Act, it got pretty messy. Because, after all, going beyond flirting was what partners were for. The leadership worried that humans couldn’t tell the difference between a human and a particularly well-formed partner. But they were wrong, for now.

So, travel, work, leisure, interaction, pursuit of all the things that made humans human. Immersed in technology, liberated to the contemplative life, free to create, free to commiserate, free to relax, free to sleep and wake and eat and enjoy partners, free to live through regenerative renewal as long as accidents didn’t intrude. Free to watch the news, to watch the world spin and develop and continue spinning. Just not free to leave, to travel to those messy areas where they farmed and fought and hunted and walked in real woods. But who really needed that? Who really did?

Free at last. Thank technology almighty. Decade melting into decade. Free.

He stared at the glass.

At last, he got up and touched the wall, and it opened.

She was on the other side, waiting.

“Is it too late to change to White?”

She studied him a long moment. A tear, calibrated as subtly as robot engineering could muster, formed at the corner of her eye.

“Yes,” she said.

“Ah,” he said. “I knew that. I should drink my Blue then.”


“Thank you.” His hand paused over the hidden switch on the wall. “Please join me.”

She smiled. “You’re the boss.”

He shook his head, touched her gently. “I’m only human.”