The Debate

in fiction •  2 years ago 

Priya gulped her third stimlat in thirty minutes. She had sent the intern for another the moment this one hit the table. The hologram in front of her flickered to life as she licked the last few drops from around the rim of the brown paper cup. The machine that sold the coffee drinks was a liberal model and its cups were festooned with extreme environmental quotations from politicians and thinkers. Priya had heard many of the quotes live, had prompted a few of them. She laughed out loud at one from the candidate for whom she was meta-comming this evening. She crushed the cup and trashed it, glancing across the hastily emptied broom closet at her counterpart, a small Asian named Wu whom she had met in passing at a few metacom summits. He was rumored to be a cold researcher with enormous reach and speed to match. Priya speculated not for the first time that he lacked the gut instinct to truly excel, though he was prompting more and more candidates these days. Instinct was her bread and butter, instinct and a lot of caffeine.

The intern appeared from behind, startling the already edgy metacom from her contemplation. Triumphant, the over-worked student slammed a four space drink tray on the processing cabinet which sat adjacent to her workspace. It carried three stimlats and the empty space was full of sugar, real stuff only, and the hazelnut creamers, chock full of fake sugar, which made the brew palatable. This new intern might last a whole campaign season. It had only taken her three trips to grasp the scope of Priya’s consumption. The Metacom informed the girl that her task for the evening would be to watch the feed-back loops, make notes, and inform Priya of any sharp changes, defined as three or more squares, or points, on the graph where the loops were displayed. The intern, hanging on every word, nodded and turned to her monitoring station, which formed a ninety degree angle with Priya’s own so that she could see it by glancing over her right shoulder which she would only deign to do if she sensed great weakness or strength in her client, or if the intern alerted her to something.

Many metacoms routed feedback through their neuroport or kept the monitor where it could be constantly assessed. Priya knew her strengths and weaknesses however, and the feedback monitor commanded far too much of her attention if she allowed it. She was hyperactive by nature and tended to become distracted. She had also found that her empathetic abilities were superior to most of her peers. She really didn’t need the monitors anymore. She seemed to be able to sense public opinion as the debate progressed. It was a skill she discussed with no one. It was her edge.

The holograph in front of her blinked rapidly for a moment and when it stopped a countdown timer appeared at the top of the projection. Two empty podiums rose from the floor of the auditorium where the organics of the debate would play out. Priya knew that each of those podiums, though seemingly innocuous, were capable of data transmission rates that rivaled most medium sized business nets. Nanotech dollars had brought massive rewards for decades of investment and government access to new technology was vast as always. Few knew the power of those podiums, or the power they represented. Most who did maintained equal parts respect and disgust while nearly all were discreet about it with the uninformed; so much so that those who weren’t discreet were widely regarded to be extremists.

4:28…4:27

The intern asked a question about divergence of feedback loops and whether or not Priya desired reports of divergences greater than three squares or simply vertical movement of a given loop. Priya sighed as she told the girl to use sound judgment and try to feel the significance of any motion and only to report if she felt it relevant. This seemed to satisfy the girl, which meant she might be intelligent. Priya sensed some tension in the young intern but not the loose chaos of panic. She was often curious whether others shared her ability. She believed it true but had yet to verify her beliefs with experience. Sometimes she felt lonely in her knowledge and at others she felt like a guardian of secrets, burdened with a dark and powerful gift.

1:59…1:58

She began to ready her station. She liked to wait as long as possible to prepare her monitors, make last minute interface changes, iris tuning or any of the other many little one or two second tasks which could occupy her up until the start of the debate. If she waited, she had to hurry. This got her in the right frame of mind for the pace of what was to come. Frenetic could almost describe it but chaotic would be too much. It was too much of a dance for that.

Priya flipped her monitors to life; her CPU had been whirring contentedly since she had arrived. She always allowed the machine a proper warm up. On her displays information was already appearing. Her data portal on one, her chat with MRT, or Metacomm Research Team, that would back her up on this debate took up most of the other, with their task queue dominating the far edge. It read 0/10 at the moment, she could assign up to ten tasks at once and a team member, of whom there were ten, would hurry to complete the task. It may be a fact-check, an obscure news quote, or an old candidate position that could be turned against him. The team was composed of graduate students and metacomm hopefuls. Her final screen bore the all important Master, or the order of the debate. In order were the main talking points, the outline which Priya would fill with facts, figures, dates and other ammunition for her client, allowing them to fire away at their opponent, struggling in tandem for survival in this most important of junctures in a political campaign.

The timer hit zero as she started streaming to the podium display. The candidates strode out confidently, their translucent VR avatars fully rendered with color and sound. Priya stole a look at her counterpart, internless and already typing furiously with one hand while burning through links with the multi-touch in the other. Priya smiled and sipped the second stimlat from the tray, her fifth, and leaned back in her chair for a blissful moment. The opening points were up and the candidates were still waving at the crowd. She could savor the eye of the storm for an instant, and then she went to work.

The neuroport behind her ear blinked rapidly, its bright orange LED signaling the traffic of information that interfaced directly with her neurons. The wireless connection allowed her to stream facts, figures, damaging quotes or information, or anything else she felt might edge her client ahead in the debate directly to the podium. She knew that with the proper interface software, she could have connected directly to his brain but security protocol mandated the podiums. The full extent of port to port connections had yet to be explored officially, though unofficially it was limited only by one’s access to the appropriate APIs. Priya had lovingly designed her own platforms and her ML algo was grey market military surplus, a combat officer’s model which she found meshed very well with her ability to think in many directions at once. Its acquisition had bitten deeply into her cache of political favors owed, but it had been well worth it. She had never found out why it ended up on the market. Independent algorithms were unpredictable at best and could fail for any number of obscure reasons which rendered them useless for one user but potentially perfect for another.

She heard the other candidate making his opening remarks at the behest of the moderator and suddenly the impressions began to wash over her, as they always did. She felt something she could only describe as empathy, felt surging emotions, though right now most were anxious and anticipating. Everyone was jacked in for this; millions of people all sitting in the same fetid auditorium, sharing a musty seat with people a whole world away, or perhaps a block. The power of VR to replicate the feeling of being connected, and not just present, had been the key along.

The other candidate had a sharp opening and the masses had responded. Priya sensed their approval and started to search for ways to counter it. They were discussing the African problem which had been brewing for decades now. Sporadic genocide begged for military intervention but nations were reluctant be the first in and NATO was noncommittal.

Her candidate was outlining his plans for pressuring NATO with a direct and open letter. The opponent argued for immediate and independent intervention.

Priya hit pay dirt. She had found an interview from the opponent’s days as a representative from Ohio, when he had run on anti-warmongering ideals that resonated with the mood of the times. He had made a statement to the effect that ignoring international cooperation in foreign conflicts could undermine our reputation and weaken bonds with other nations.

She streamedt it. Her candidate interrupted a sentence about surgical air strikes with the quote followed by his consistent record of global thinking.

Priya inhaled deeply as a rush of approval raced up and down her spine. The people seemed to be grooving with international relations. She prompted the client to hammer his foreign relations committee service and his congenial relations with leaders worldwide. She followed that with a great stat, he had voted in the affirmative on 86 percent of bills promoting a global economy in his time as a lawmaker. The juice was really flowing. Pictures of her candidate with various friendly, multi-colored executives the world over flashed on the titanic display behind him, all filtered through her algo, and approved by her on the fly based on public mood. Priya, really moving now, queued up a full task load for her team and continued to dig.

“Excuse me ma’am”

She realized she hadn’t even told the intern her name

“It’s Priya”

“The middle to far right is seriously lagging, down three points and falling”

She looked at the hologram, zoomed it out and saw, behind the opponent, a picture which made her recoil in horror. She felt the wave of disapproval hit her at the same time. When it got this bad, a pulsing pain began from the base of her neck and traveled to the temples in waves of agony. Her candidate just happened to be touting his voluntary seat on an international morality board which expedited capture and punishment of international sex offenders, which was an unfortunate and growing problem. He couldn’t see the picture of him sloppily kissing a secretary which was displayed behind him like a pair of rabbit ears, silently mocking every righteous word.

Priya streamed a screen shot from her monitor and the candidate paused mid-sentence. His opponent seized the opportunity to begin his own record of church attendance and bible adherence.

“Losing the right ma’am and the--”

“It’s Priya”

“-- the middle and even some of the mid left is starting to go, not up to three yet but moving”

She looked across the glorified closet where they worked and saw what could have been a smirk on her counterpart’s slim face. The disapproval pounded in her skull now. Why couldn’t she get a read on him? Her empathetic skills failed her as she tried to probe his mood for fissures of weakness. Finding none, she refocused on the job at hand. She had to work quickly now. Some of her tasks had come back and, after reassigning the team, she quickly paged through them, the multi-touch trackball beneath her hand reminiscent of its crystal brethren of myth, the portal through which Priya made the future.

She began a deep news search for each candidate. On a hunch she tied the inquiry to a photo of the opponent, which made the search algorithm look for matching picture files as well as simple name matches, even if the pictures were not associated with an article. The search would take a few extra seconds; precious, precious seconds at this point, but it had worked before. She pumped material at the man in the hologram, some prepared, some found in the constant shuffling and sub-searching of the nets which was the orchestra pit to her opera, the accompaniment to whatever main thread she was following at a given moment.

The search completed and she began working back in time, the AI speeding her brain through the matches at a biologically infeasible rate. Her candidate was performing well, recovering as best as could be expected from the political nitroglycerin that was the extramarital affair. He had treated it honestly. It hadn’t exactly been a secret, though the photo was unexpected as none were known to the candidate or his staff. She rifled through reams of digital news print. Presidential candidates generate a lot of copy over their lives. She finally found what she was looking for, buried in the opponent’s early twenties, when he was arrested for stalking a divinity student he suspected of sleeping with his college girlfriend. He had been found in possession of a rope, garbage bags, and a hunting rifle but swore he hadn’t planned any foul play, just a direct confrontation. It had all the elements, it was perfect. Priya beamed the article with the mug shot in a separate file so it would go to the display. The debate, a half hour long primary affair, was drawing to a close. Her candidate, who by virtue of his slightly longer service, was blessedly allowed the final remarks. Here his talents as a statesman really shone as he managed to indict his opponent without sounding judgmental, forgive without sounding magnanimous, and to question the public whether or not anyone with a history, however brief, of violence could be trusted to hold an office of such vast import as President. The waves of pressure had slowed to a slow pulse which stayed in her neck.

She ended her stream with a few options for closers, a riff about integrity and maintaining an even keel as being top qualifications for a president, or perhaps a recap of his international accomplishments, a sure to be hot button issue in the coming weeks. He chose the latter to close and she felt it was the right thing to do, her suspicions confirmed by the tingle of approval which danced over her scalp like static electricity. She thanked her team in global chat, thanked the intern, who seemed equal parts vindicated and impressed and shut down her monitors.

“Right is stabilizing, Priya” she pronounced it defensively, almost spitting it out. “Moderates are rebounding”

“Thank you” she managed to stammer as she watched the few debate goers stand and deliver an ovation respectable considering the meager size of the assemblage.

She stole a last look across the room and saw her counterpart, all traces of smirk deleted as he stared mesmerized at his feedback monitor. That was why she didn’t keep the screen where she could see it. He was sweating, his mouth agape as he watched his candidate stagger. His task was completed but still he stared at the monitor in disbelief; he thought he had won. Failures like this could end a campaign. Try as she might however, she still couldn’t get a read on him. She could see his face, his body language, the sweat tracing straight paths down his forehead, but she had no impression, no sense of his mood. As his candidate finished his closer and he stood she noticed an oddity, no neuroport blinked behind his right ear, wirelessly connecting him with the vast intersections of the global net. Realization punched her in the gut. Her opinion of this evening’s opponent rose appreciably. To perform as he had tonight, in a presidential debate no less was impressive in any capacity but without a hardwired neuroport and an Algo, without even an intern it was an astonishing feat. He nodded and she nodded back. It was a game and he didn’t apologize for his limitations any more than she apologized for her advantages. They matched their resources, whatever they were, and someone prevailed. She would have to keep an eye on Wu.

As the whirring hum of cooling fans faded, she gathered her few things and walked out of the room. She liked to get out before the unfortunate few who had trucked down here on foot, foregoing the convenience of a neural feed in favor of uncomfortable chairs and sweltering heat exacerbated by stiff collars.

As she walked toward the train station, she logged into her smart pod which hung in a small neoprene sheath on her belt and began trolling the nets, researching background for her next job. She would have a busy week ending with another debate, this one focused on domestic issues, including, unfortunately for her new client, crime. How she was going to beat this stalking rap and keep up with tax threads, healthcare threads and others that went with a domestic policy debate she did not know at this point. It wasn’t so much the gun, but the image of rope and garbage bags that would linger in the mind’s eye of the public for a long time. Nevertheless she would enjoy the challenge; it was all in a day’s work.

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