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Under My Thumb

Laura Ansara has always been drawn to dystopian science fiction and films. She writes stories in worlds that are arguably not as far from reality as they seem. A dark ending with a pathway to hope is always preferable to the happy, tidy one. Laura writes from a corner bedroom of a suburban home in Ohio during serendipitous moments of peace in an otherwise active household of kids and a husband. She's currently writing a trilogy built in a similar world of "sims" with different characters. Follow LauraAnsaraBooks on Instagram.

Hugh rolled off of Salina, hoping for thirty minutes of sleep before getting out of bed. She lay her head on his shoulder, holding her body close to his. They didn't speak of love yet, but Hugh felt its presence.
They'd met three weeks earlier. Besides her obvious beauty, Salina's sharp wit and shameless expression of world views fascinated Hugh. Best of all, she shared his disdain of the State. Anyone could bond over that, as long as you could trust the other person not to turn you in. She had revealed her position when she whispered plainly during a passionate moment, "I'm a dissenter." He later asked how she could risk such an admission so early in their relationship. Women's intuition, she'd said with a knowing grin.
At breakfast, Hugh blocked his online identity to read illegal vid news. Salina poured a bowl of cereal.
"Today's issue of Current suggests the State is programming sims to read minds. Shit!" he said.
"I'm sure a loyalist planted that story to scare us," said Salina. "Mind reading isn't possible. Sims are as much like people as they are computers. They don't have magic powers."
Hugh admired her conviction, but he disagreed. Sims were already able to identify political malaise, indignation, and contempt through facial expressions and body language. In public spaces, sims interpreted people's reaction to State vid announcements and recorded them to a database. It wasn't completely far-fetched that they could develop algorithms to make mind-reading estimations based on these observations. Of course, political dissent wasn't a crime as long as the offending ideas didn't end up written or spoken outside of one's home, the last sacred place of privacy. But dissenters were carefully observed.
"The State already polices our moves. I'm sure the claim has merit. It's been five years since we've been allowed to protest anything. This is just another notch in their quest for ultimate control. They've overturned established law, decimated our free press, and now they want to lock down our thoughts."
Salina looked up from her corn flakes and frowned, then gently squeezed his hand.
"We still know a sim from a person by their cobalt eyes. But it's only a matter of time before they develop a natural iris. Or start using human ones," he added as Salina cringed. "Then we won't know who is human versus sim and everything will go to hell."
"Yes, hell. Sometimes I forget we're not already in it," she said smugly. Salina dumped the rest of her cereal in the sink, then wrapped herself around Hugh's back, reading the article over his shoulder. Her scent made him want to take her back to bed, but work awaited.
Before closing out the page, Hugh copied the article and pressed a thumb to his vid.
"What are you doing?" asked Salina, her voice raised with alarm.
"I'm saving this in my journal."
"You have a journal on a thumb print drive? My God, Hugh! You could be arrested for that!"
Hugh shifted in his seat. "We've got to keep record of the State's crimes. One day we'll need written proof of all they've done to us."
"You risked the black market to get that drive embedded in your thumb?" Her voice slightly shook.
"Yes. That's how important this is to me."
"Do you put your personal views in it as well?" Salina's face paled.
Hugh hesitated. They'd shared their dissenting views at length as friends and lovers, but now she looked at him as if he were a traitor. He gave assurance, he'd never hinted of her in his writing. The drive held collections of articles and jotted notes about the State's control.
Salina started crying. "Why didn't you just keep a written journal under your mattress like anyone else would? By installing it on your body, you're taking political dissent outside the home, everywhere you go!"
"The thumb print drive isn't detectable to the naked eye. No one will know," insisted Hugh. She stopped crying and reached for him.
"I loved you, you know," she whispered.
"Salina, what's--"
"They said I could continue with you as long as you didn't break any laws. But now that's ruined. Forgive me." Her embrace turned into physical pain as she twisted Hugh's arms behind his back and tied his wrists together. He resisted, but her strength proved three times his own.
Hugh struggled to move his locked arms. "You're a sim?"
She didn't have to confirm it. Her eyes stared into space as she mentally contacted her handlers. He'd be taken to prison in less than twenty minutes.
"Wait! You said you loved me. We could just destroy the journal. Pretend it never existed! Why end what we have?" They both knew his life was on the line.
"I'm sorry, Hugh. This is how the State operates now. We get into people's beds and minds, then strip the last thing from them that's their own. I'm ashamed at the inhumanity of it, but there's one way I'm truly different than you. I can't disobey programming."
"Salina, please," he pleaded sincerely. "Find a way around your programming so that you can free me without disobeying."
Salina's eyes brightened as if he'd given her a brilliant idea. The handlers would arrive shortly, for certain.
She untied his wrists and steadied his thumb on the table. She pressed her own thumb against his. An electrified current flowed through his hand.
"I'm overriding your dissenter articles and journal notes with loyalist ones. You'll be charged for the black market drive, but after paying the fine, you'll be free."
Hugh's heart sank. "I'll be pegged a loyalist. That's not freedom. They'll force me to spy on friends and turn people in. They'll notify their minions to groom me!"
Salina finished the task and put an affectionate finger to his chin. "I found a way around my programming. Now you find a way around yours."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

Author Comments

Simulated humans, or sims, have intrigued me ever since I first watched Blade Runner on the big screen. I wanted to create a romantic scenario in an oppressed world that ended in betrayal. When I finished this story, it seemed like a "Black Mirror" episode, which felt right. The ending offers a twist of dark redemption that makes us fear for Hugh's fate. Although Hugh operates on a belief system true to who he is at heart, in the end, how do any of us know that our beliefs aren't just another form of programming, as the sim suggests?

- Laura Ansara
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