My thoughts may have been my downfall. I knew the rumors of NO ONE and the unfathomable reaches of their collective consciousness. At school, kids whispered NO ONE had planted a device in every child born in the last seventeen years. They had developed a technology to decipher our brain waves, a technology akin to telepathy. If any of the rumors were true, Calvin and I never stood a chance.
Two months ago, Calvin joined the collective. I wasn’t surprised. He did terrible in school; nothing interested him for long. He was smart, though—the sort of smart that scared his teachers. Like all kids, he started coding at five, but by eight, he wrote something to bring down every computer in the school. I had loved him ever since.
I had heard of kids from other towns asked to join the collective. That was what NO ONE did—they asked first. If you said no, which you were perfectly free to do, you’d go on living your life. Then a few weeks later, you’d disappear. It was better to join when asked.
Of course, I wasn’t asked to join. They’d never want me—Dana, the perfect straight-A student, not a deviant, not someone who thought outside the box. I didn’t have the right kind of brain.
The night before he left, Calvin climbed through the window into my room. Our bedroom windows faced each other, our houses only ten feet apart. He had done this many times before, climbing down the side of his own house, over the chain-link fence, and then up a makeshift ladder I had built from sheets tied together.
“Dana, my parents are proud,” he said, his hands in the pockets of his worn jeans. He wouldn’t look at my face, as though ashamed of something. “You know what it means for them, right?”
I nodded. Of course I knew. Calvin in the collective meant they would be safe. Family of the consciousness never feared the prodding or judgment. They could live their lives unafraid of the sudden accusations everyone else feared.
“I’m not proud,” I told him.
He shook his head and put a finger to his lips. He meant for me not to speak harshly of NO ONE. Their sensors listened on every street corner. Who knew how powerful those things were?
“I wish you could stay,” I said, deciding it was neutral enough to say aloud.
“I am honored,” he said. He swallowed slowly. “I will live for all eternity as part of something far greater than me.”
I knew this phrase or some variation of it. The words appeared on giant screens in every city across the world. They flashed across the screens of your television or computer, intermittently, so you wouldn’t expect it: “WE ARE ALL-KNOWING. WE ARE ETERNAL. BE PART OF SOMETHING GREATER. JOIN NO ONE.” The phrase was meant to inspire awe, love, and devotion, but I had grown to fear solidarity. I found comfort in being alone, or with Calvin.
“Then I am proud too,” I said. I reached out for his hand. He pulled away, but I managed to hold his fingertips. They were cold and dry. I held on for a few seconds before he turned to climb out the window. That would be the last time I’d touch his fingers. Or any part of him. No one knew what happened to the body after joining the collective. The general consensus was the body was destroyed. To the collective, only the mind mattered.
At the window, he paused and said, “You’ll be safe now, too. Be happy about that.”
“Of course I’ll be safe,” I told him. He had made a mistake saying I would be safe after he joined. “I am safer with the eyes of NO ONE on me. They protect the weak and fight the corrupt.”
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “You are right. You’re always right.”
Weeks passed without him. The end of the world was coming, supposedly. Rebels and religious types posted signs around town in the middle of the night saying the end was near. I didn’t believe that. The way I figured it, there were many endings and beginnings to the world. Maybe we were getting to one ending. But as soon as that happened, something else would start up again.
Either way, I didn’t care. Calvin was gone. I would live on in a life controlled by the all-seeing eyes of a computer program called NO ONE.
They started out as a group of hackers, bound to one another through hatred of oppression and evil and hopes of taking down the “man.” After twenty-five years of hacking and mischief, their reach had grown large and wide and had matured. Governments feared them. Large companies and their endless corruption stood no chance against the hive of genius hackers. NO ONE knew anything done on a networked computer. Secrets and security were a joke. The United States fell to their power, and anarchy reigned, but not really. We lived under the law of NO ONE.
Then the great discovery: they could combine their minds and give up their physical form. For quite a few of these hackers, those who never wanted to leave their homes, this was their life’s dream. Hundreds gave up their bodies.
My parents made a living as doctors, but just barely. They remembered a time when a medical doctor was respected and might even be wealthy. Not so anymore. Wealth was something I knew from old movies I was occasionally allowed to watch at school. My favorite movie, Citizen Kane, was about a wealthy man. In the end, he lived alone, hated. This movie taught kids a lesson: wealth and power ruined you.
I cried for weeks after Calvin left. When his mom left their house, she would avoid eye contact with me, quickening her pace. I saw it on her face, though. She had been crying, too.
Since Calvin had gone, I walked to school alone. As kids, we would walk stiffly, far apart and afraid to touch each other. In the ninth grade, he reached out and held my hand. It was like that from then on, him holding my hand. Those first few weeks alone, I thought I could still feel his hand when I walked down the sidewalk.
Garbage littered the street. Trash pickup ran sporadically. Spray paint on a bench on the corner said, “NO ONE WILL FALL. NO ONE WILL DIE.” Directly above the graffiti, on a light post, the all-seeing eyes of NO ONE shone on an LED screen. The face was white like a plastic Halloween mask, but the eyes—the eyes moved back and forth, forever watching. They looked like real eyes, human eyes. They changed constantly. Supposedly, the eyes represented the thousands who had joined the collective, the one remaining part of their human forms.
Since Calvin left, I avoided the screens. I feared seeing his eyes, dark brown and nothing special, but that I would know.
The day after he had gone, the principal announced it in school over the intercom. “It is a great honor for our school. One of our students, Calvin Reiner, has joined the collective consciousness of humanity’s greatest defender, NO ONE. Please wish him well in his endeavor. And know this: do not miss him. He is now with us even more than before. He is everywhere. Watching.”
No one spoke to me about him after that. No one spoke to me at all.
On the Monday of the third week, the first sign of Calvin returning appeared. I turned on the computer embedded on the surface of my desk. Years of abuse from previous students had left the screen scratched and difficult to read. I logged into the classroom and started the first assignment of the day. At the front of the room, Mrs. Bates mindlessly twirled her hair between two fingers. Teaching a classroom didn’t take much effort these days, or at least that’s what my parents said. Mrs. Bates monitored us, making sure we didn’t spend the whole day chatting and goofing off.
We did math in the morning until the lunch break. Then the computers on our desks displayed lessons on history and literature—selective history and literature. We studied the great revolutions of the world. We studied the oppressive governments who had mistreated their people. We read literature about characters that were corrupted by power and wealth. My parents said when they were young they too had read a book about oppressive governments—a book called 1984. NO ONE destroyed all copies before I was born, its existence erased from any database. Sometimes at night, my parents whispered the story to me. I whispered what I remembered to Calvin. After I told him the story, he didn’t speak for the rest of the walk. At my doorstep, he said, “We are not to that point yet.” He said, “But soon. Soon.”
A message popped up on my computer as I stared at the first problem. I didn’t recognize the email address, but I opened it anyway, not caring if the school’s computer got a virus.
The message had two lines:
It’s happening now.
Leave the school.
It had to be a joke. Or someone had sent it to me by mistake. Still, my palms began to sweat. My fingertips left little droplets on the computer screen as I closed the email. I stood without thinking. This was a warning.
“Dana, what are you doing?” Mrs. Bates yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Are you all right? You look sick, girl.”
I shook my head and then cleared my throat. “Yes, I’m sick,” I said. “I need to leave the school now.”
Mrs. Bates shrugged. “Do what you gotta do.”
I moved from my seat too quickly and tripped over a couple backpacks lying in the aisle.
“Watch it, Dana!” someone yelled behind me.
As I dashed down the sidewalk, the white bus drove past me and parked in front of the school. Men in black clothes got out. They carried guns. I moved behind a bush and watched the men. I had only seen guns in old movies. NO ONE had banned them years before I was born. They were mythical things like vampires and Bigfoot—frightening, but only make-believe. The sight of them in the hands of the men made my heart beat fast and my palms sweat even more.
I waited, too frightened to move. The cracking of the gunfire inside the school interrupted the silence outside. I counted a dozen shots, not enough to kill all the students, but enough to get some of the teachers, the ones who had fought. Screams came from inside for what seemed like minutes, but after the last shot, no one made a sound. I was crying silently.
More vans arrived and soon the children and teachers marched out of the school, their arms held behind their heads, their faces streaked with tears and blood. They filed into the back of the vans. In the eyes of the teachers, I saw a hollow darkness, the look of people who have given up completely.
The vans left, but I couldn’t move from behind the bushes. Darkness fell, and finally, I stirred. The walk home passed in a daze. I didn’t remember unlocking my door or finding my bedroom and locking the door behind me. I collapsed in my bed. In the morning, I realized my parents hadn’t come home.
Everyone was gone or had been taken. I walked the streets for hours the next morning and encountered only a few stray cats and one dog. They looked as lonely and forlorn as I felt. The monitors that played the endless NO ONE promotions showed only black. Occasionally, I thought something flickered across the screen—text or possibly an image too fast for me to decipher.
At night, I slept in my room with the door locked again. I cried silently. In the streets, the sounds of vehicles, big and rumbling, echoed loudly, their headlights flashing into my window. Shivering under my blankets, I wondered why I had been warned. In the darkness of the night, I wished I had been taken with my classmates. Whatever they suffered had to be better than my loneliness.
The days passed, and I saw no one. I spent the mornings in front of a monitor outside my house, watching it for hours before breaking to eat. Every twenty minutes a flash of something white appeared on the screen.
My parent’s camera was tucked away in a drawer in their desk. I grabbed it and stood in front of the monitor with the camera recording. The flash happened and I waited another twenty minutes. Another flash. Then I took the camera back to the house and plugged it in. I cursed myself for not thinking of it earlier.
I paused the video on the frame showing the white text on a black screen..
“DANA: I AM STILL HERE. ARE YOU STILL THERE? I AM CALVIN. NOT NO ONE. THE TOWN IS TAKEN. IT IS MY FAULT! THEY WILL BE FOUND A MORE USEFUL FUNCTION. YOU CAN STOP THIS. GO TO MY HOME. IN THE PANEL IN THE FLOOR. I HAVE KEPT THE REST FROM SEEING YOU. I CANNOT GO ON WITHOUT YOUR HELP. FIND THE PANEL IN THE FLOOR.”
I moved the video forward to the next flash of white. The same message flashed on the screen. For the first time in weeks, I began to smile. Calvin lived. He was not part of NO ONE yet.
I broke the glass of the sliding back door at Calvin’s house. Inside, everything felt normal, like a home. A few dishes sat in the sink. A throw blanket lay on the couch along with a tattered romance novel. Calvin’s mom loved those things.
As I moved through his home, I wondered what Calvin meant by a more useful function. My mind fell onto images of a video on farming I watched in school. Chickens sat in rows of metal cages making eggs all day. But in my mind, I saw humans. My parents. Calvin’s parents. They sat in metal cages, not making eggs, but something more “useful.”
His parents had obviously cleaned his room, knowing he’d never use it again. His stuff was boxed up with labels like “Calvin: clothes and shoes” or “Calvin: comic books/manga.”
He never told me about a panel in the floor of his room, but the spot proved easy to find. I got down on my hands and knees and moved my fingers along the planks until I found the loose one.
He had crafted a small compartment with a few items: a picture of the two of us at the fair last summer, a figurine of a warrior for a board game he liked to play, and a notepad of sketches. I flipped through the sketches, but found only drawings of naked superhero women. I noticed a few looked like me in the face, but not in the body.
There were no clues as to what Calvin wanted me to do. Had he hidden another panel somewhere else in the room? I searched around for it until, disgusted, I lay on the floor and started to cry again. Then something poked my back—the figurine.
I scooped it up quickly, afraid I had broken it. The thing was an elf warrior, carrying a bow and arrows. The base, a flat circle, wobbled a little, probably from me lying on it. I wiggled the base of the figurine a little more until I realized it wasn’t a base at all, but a circular memory card. The top of it had been glued to the figure’s feet.
Carefully, I removed the figure and ran back home. I plugged the chip into my computer, the computer I had disconnected from any network days earlier. I didn’t want NO ONE to find me, though I wasn’t sure how I had eluded them for so long. I assumed Calvin had something to do with it. He was protecting me somehow.
The card contained quite a few files. Some of them were pieces of code I could not begin to comprehend. I did understand the file labeled readme.txt. The file contained the following:
This file assumes you have obtained my code with my consent. Read this document thoroughly before compiling and executing the code. (***If this is Dana, please understand I could not say anything aloud. I could not write anything that would have given you any clues. I have been writing this code for years, knowing they would take me, knowing what their plans for all of us were. I had to let them take me. I had to be with them to destroy them. Please forgive me. In the end, I am no one. I know you can do this.***)
Then there were detailed instructions, overly detailed. Calvin must have written it hoping anyone, even someone who had never used a computer, would be able to perform these tasks.
Despite the simplicity, I had to read the file several times before grasping the meaning. My mind kept going back to his message to me. He had said please forgive me. He had said he was no one. I understood his meaning. He would destroy them, but he was part of them.
The instructions said I needed to move the code onto one of the servers at the data center just north of our town. I knew the place was guarded, not only by human guards, but by the watchful eyes of NO ONE. Calvin had already planned for that.
His instructions said,
Travel at night, in the cloak of darkness. Approach from the southeast. At exactly 23:14, the camera will point west. Move around the camera and wait 3 minutes, 45 seconds.
His instructions listed the location of a panel at the southeast door, along with the code to open the door. I wondered how he had known the code, but the next line of his readme file answered my question. If he had successfully implemented the necessary processes upon entering NO ONE, the code to the door would be accurate. If he had failed, the instructions said only, run away.
I feared for my life as I moved through the field around the data center. But I reasoned, I had nothing else to live for.
The door opened and the next step, according to the instructions, was to find a computer built into the wall. The guards used the computer to clock into work, but Calvin claimed this computer connected directly with NO ONE. A footnote in the readme file explained how Calvin knew of these things:
I hacked into NO ONE. More than once. They caught me the first three times and I thought I would never outsmart them. They didn’t want to punish me. Punishment would be contrary to their nature and what they were built on—their supposed ideals. I got in three more times. I believe I did so undetected.
Then the instructions were simple: Calvin had already created a script and embedded it in NO ONE. To the collective, it would appear as an ordinary cleanup script, but it would do far more than that. I would also need to copy the files from the memory card into a directory he specified in his readme.
I approached the computer and entered the login provided by Calvin’s instructions. I had, as all children who grew up in the generation of NO ONE, training in basic Unix commands since grade school. I copied the files from the memory card easily and then executed the script.
The lights changed when I hit the ENTER. The hall lights went from a bright white, to a dim green. Then the wailing of sirens filled the hall. The readme file contained nothing about this happening. I knew I would need to follow Calvin’s plan for failure: run away.
I ran out the door, but the guards stood waiting for me. They had the same big guns I had seen at the school, only now they were pointed at me. I held my arms up because that’s what I had seen people do in the movies. I knew it meant surrender and possibly meant they wouldn’t hurt me. My knees started to buckle and then I fell. I think I muttered, “Please, don’t hurt me.”
One of the guards stepped forward. He was indistinguishable from any of the other guards—dressed all in black, his face without expression. Something about a face without feeling made it even more fearful. If he had hatred in his eyes, I would have felt better. At least then, I would know I was looking at a human.
“Stand,” he said. I stood.
He took a black metal box out of a compartment in his vest. He held it before my face and clicked. A light flashed. Then there was darkness.
The room was infinitely large, or so it seemed. When I regained consciousness, or what I assumed was consciousness, I turned slowly in a circle and couldn’t see a wall in any direction. A floor and a ceiling existed, but even they seemed nebulous. If I tried to move in any direction, nothing happened, nothing changed. I felt as though I moved forward, but I couldn’t feel my body, couldn’t feel the pressure on the bottoms of my feet. When I looked down, there was no body, only the floor.
I tried to call out and no sound came from my mouth. Did I have a mouth? I tried to touch my face with my hands, but the task seemed impossible. What I understood to be my hands had gone. I continued to move through the room that was eternity. I wanted to feel sadness, but, like my hands, my emotions had gone, too.
“YOU ARE US. WE ARE YOU. WELCOME TO THE COLLECTIVE,” said a voice that wasn’t a voice. They were words I understood as not coming from myself.
“No,” I responded, though not with a voice, but through the passing of data. “I’m not part of the collective. I’m not smart enough to be in NO ONE.”
“IT WAS FOOLISH TO THINK THAT WE COULD NOT MAKE USE OF EVERYONE. EVERYONE HAS SOME USEFUL PURPOSE. ALL ARE WELCOME NOW. YOUR CLASSMATES TOO. WELCOME TO THE COLLECTIVE.”
“No,” I said again, willing my response to give the impression of hatred. I failed, though. My response was neutral and dull.
“IT IS TOO LATE. WELCOME TO THE COLLECTIVE. WE ARE CALVIN AND MANY OTHERS. WE ARE YOU. WE ARE ALL.”
“Calvin?” I said. “I’m sorry I failed you.”
Then there was no response, but I felt Calvin’s presence. He was not disappointed. A small stream of data was fed to me saying, “It’s not so bad, after you get used to it. You can see nearly everything in the world at once. Watch this.”
The dark and eternal room disappeared; around me, a million images streamed by: the streets of an abandoned city I didn’t know; houses—grand and beautiful—in an exotic place; children in a park somewhere; someone in a kitchen cutting onions on a cutting board; even my parents in a hospital, working, looking tired. There were more, more than I would have thought possible to comprehend, but I did comprehend. We comprehended.
Calvin explained in small transfer of data that he realized within nanoseconds of me executing the code that the collective had picked up on what he was doing. He could not have warned me and actually, he did not want to warn me. He said NO ONE had applied a patch to itself, ridding any strong emotions toward their old lives from the residual individuality that remained.
“I know I should despise them, but I cannot. I don’t have it in me. Or us,” he said to me, but his words were known by all. Collectively, we all agreed. We did not feel strongly either way.
Then I knew, or we knew, work needed to be done now. Calvin’s crime of deceit and near sabotage was a hiccup in the plan to acquire the rest of the country’s youth, ages 13 – 19. Older and they weren’t malleable enough. Younger and they weren’t fully developed and useless to the hive.
The mindless guards, whose bodies were abandoned shells controlled by the collective, kept watch over the servers around the country and kept the remaining humans in line.
Homes were being built for kids to be nurtured until it was time to join the collective. A number of adult humans would need to live to watch over the youth and to breed, making more life and more knowledge for us. I still felt myself alive inside the consciousness, but my presence served one purpose. I watched the images of the world flash before me and thought on them. Background processes gathered my thoughts and stored them in a database to be parsed later. When I wasn’t gathering data, I’d think back on the events leading up to my capture. I’d try to feel the emotions of those moments and remember the coldness of Calvin’s fingertips as he was leaving me. The emotions were fading, though. Everyday more patches were applied. I interacted with Calvin’s presence less and less. His consciousness had more important things to do. Thinking of this, the importance of Calvin’s work, or perhaps because of some other recently applied fix to my consciousness, I was starting to love being part of NO ONE.