Jan/Feb 2021  •   Fiction


by Nirushan Sivagnanasuntharam

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, Mandala, 2015, Stinson Beach

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

Our year was the first in which the rules were enforced: If the machine found you to not have sufficient intelligence, you were kept back from participating in intellectual and leadership pursuits. It didn't matter if we didn't all agree with its findings. Who would agree with a machine that said they didn't possess superior intelligence? But there was no arguing with the authorities and their enforcers. The machine had apparently been in development for years, ever since it was discovered how exactly each neuron in the brain and nerve of the body worked together in intelligent humans compared to others. The science was not to be argued with.

There was talk going around about how, actually, mostly people of less intelligence were allowed to go on because they were needed as followers, like sheep, to push the agenda of the powerful, thus granting the already powerful even more control and even more power. I don't know if I agree with this. The machine seems to be accurate for the most part—those I thought were smart were permitted through and those I thought were not, weren't—except when it came to me.

I think either there is an error in the science, or the machine just made a mistake. Looking back at my sitting, where a half dozen wires connected from my arms, head, and stomach to this contraption with a needle drawing little zig zags, I couldn't believe anyone could think this thing should be the sole deciding factor on who got to influence the world and who did not. It looked and felt like a lie detector machine, and those are seen as imperfect and not admissible in court. Lie detector tests are treated more like general guides for investigators, which I think may be how reports from this machine should be looked at. If it was up to me.

I received a failing grade on the working order of neurons in my brain and the nerve cells in my body. In my defense, I didn't fail it by much. The machine was positive for the most part, reporting my neurons and nerve cells worked well together, but they just didn't work as well as was required to move on. While the machine acknowledged I was capable of complex thought, it could not sufficiently promise I was able to put together unbiased thought with enough regularity. Those were the key issues. It also suggested I could be too easily manipulated. I will admit, I sometimes have a hard time dealing with good salespeople. But that doesn't apply to other areas of my life. I know I can write thoughtful, unbiased pieces.

For a while I was at a loss. I had put in a claim to redo my test but was not optimistic permission would be granted.

I had heard Zaneb was one of the few who had passed, and since I hadn't had a chance to talk to her recently, I went to visit her in her dorm. When I congratulated her, she looked unimpressed, shrugging off her success as if it were a nuisance. When I asked her why she was not excited, she said, "It doesn't matter. I'm not going to be going on."

"Why not?"

"I like it here. Why should I have to go on? All my family is still here. Why would I want my life to be complicated?"

I had to admit, she had a good point. There must be a couple of others like her. But, staying back meant she couldn't vote and couldn't help influence world policy. I guess I can see why someone would pass up on these rights. Getting involved in politics can muddy one's mind and keep one from properly enjoying one's life. Her situation is particularly unusual because she doesn't talk to anyone really, preferring to be by herself, but then she is especially close to her parents who are much older. Her father, I believe, is in particularly poor health. Of course, she would want to be with him as much as possible.

Then it came to me that maybe I could use her ticket. I mean, she had a ticket she wasn't going to use. And I don't want to live a quiet life. I want to be involved. I want to write. I want to be a mover and a shaker. I can't sit back and let life happen to me. I want to make a difference. That is my purpose.

Taking another person's ticket usually doesn't work, because what two people look alike enough to pull it off? Zaneb and I do look very alike, though, lucky for me. The same olive skin, angular cheek bone structure, triangular nose and wavy, shoulder length hair. When wearing a hat, we can look exactly alike to a stranger, especially to a white person who has difficulty differentiating between Asians. As long as there is enough resemblance, I was sure I would get through. And I am convinced I can make a good contribution to the world beyond. I have ideas. I am capable of complex thought. I think my test showed that, no matter what the damn machine said.

Now I had to figure out how to broach the subject without coming off like some vulture.

"So... your ticket... do you... what do you plan to do with it?"

"I don't know. Nothing, I guess."

"Could I take it, then? Or do you think you might want to use it later?" I spoke the second question quickly, already regretting what I'd said first.

"You want my ticket?" she said. "Don't you...?"

"No, I don't have a ticket."

"They won't let you try again?"

"I put in a request. I think there are a lot of people who want to do it again."

"You don't want to go on. Why not stay? Your life would be too complicated."

"I want to write, though. I want to..."

"Oh. But why, though?"

"Because I do. I know that is what I am meant to do. I don't know what else I would do with myself. The whole thing is so stupid. How can a test decide who can write and do stuff in this world and who can't?"

"It's just a stupid test. It doesn't mean anything. And you can still do stuff. What are you talking about? You can have a good life."

"But I can't write."

"If that's all you're here for, then get lost." She looked me firmly in the eye, then waved her hand quickly at my face and turned away.

I thought of asking why she wouldn't give me her ticket, if she didn't want to use hers, but I could see this was not the right time. The right time to make such a request might never arise. Maybe, I should steal her ticket. Maybe, I should wait in case she changes her mind. Or maybe, the machine was right and I should accept my fate.

It is a saddening thought, but at least I know I'm not alone. Maybe, I can start a movement with others who are dissatisfied. Together, we could make a push to allow our voices to be heard. Everyone should be allowed a voice, no matter what the damn machine says. This is a democracy. And anyway, I'm not totally stupid. The machine said. The machine said that I am reasonably smart. The machine said I am capable of complex thought. Surely that is enough?

A vision came to me: I had somehow gotten hold of the ticket, probably when Zaneb wasn't looking, and passed through to the world beyond while wearing a hat and not looking directly at the guards at the entranceway. Then later, when I was found out, many said how clever I was to put myself in this position. The machine wasn't perfect, they said, because the science wasn't perfect. Sometimes, it missed a good person, and besides, I was intelligent enough. Just look at the intelligent thoughts and the complex, unbiased ideas I had put together, which I had successfully published in some of the best journals. I was intelligent enough to be kept.