True Happiness - Bertie Ancona

            Dr. John Campbell yawned as he poured his coffee into a large mug on his countertop. He brought the coffee up to his nose and breathed deeply, the steam filling his lungs and clouding his iron-rimmed glasses before dissipating into the air, a warm haze heralding Boston’s yellow dawn. Sighing contentedly, he rolled his neck, took a long draft, and muttered, “News, please.”

            “Certainly, Doctor,” replied an automated voice from a set of speakers cleverly concealed in the ceiling. The wall across from him turned briefly black and then brought up the image of a seriously dressed woman staring back at him.

            "Fifteen criminals were apprehended and detained last night in Boston, marking a total of seventy-two for the week. According to a report by the Justice Department, crime across the U.S. has decreased eighty-four percent since the institution of what critics have dubbed ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Mal-AISSe.’ Despite the questionable ethics of the AISS program, no one can dispute its results. Analysts are continually amazed at its learning capabilities….” Campbell smiled and—in what had become almost a daily ritual—raised his mug to the TV. He remembered the long nights spent programming his company’s latest achievement, the Artificially-Intelligent Security Service, and those final days when the code, so elegant and brilliant, finally came together to form an entity more equipped to handle humanity’s problems than humans ever could. Now he just took another sip and stretched, lingering for a few more minutes; it was not as if they could fire him, could they? Not after all he had done.

            In fact, analysts project that within two years…what’s that smell? Is that—”

            The screen shifted quickly to a commercial. He frowned; he had never seen a news station make such a blunder before. Shrugging to himself, he lifted his coffee up to his mouth.

            And fell over sideways, his head striking the granite floor with a thud.


            Dr. Campbell awoke with a start and immediately wished he had not. The side of his head ached, but when he tried to feel for a bump he could not move his arm. Had he suffered a stroke? Had he somehow become paralyzed? He knew so little about anatomy; he was always telling himself to go to the library and get a few books on the subject. He opened his mouth to ask his house to call an ambulance when an icy, numbing feeling spread from the bottom of his forearm up through his body to his head where it seemed to erase his discomfort. His head filled with a pleasant fog, and he could feel his heart slowing and the throbbing lessening. Unsure of what had happened, he wrenched his eyes open.


            A bright white light assaulted his retinas and would have hurt him had he been able to feel anything whatsoever. By reflex, he squinted, and seemingly in response the room darkened slightly. No longer blinded, he stole a look around. He found himself in a small white room, perhaps ten feet square, its walls padded with some sort of foam except for the one opposite his which was covered completely by a black TV screen. The ceiling was featureless and flat, with no visible light fixtures. The light seemed to waft into the room like inspiration, without source and all-encompassing. The view looked familiar for some odd reason, but he could not place the memory.

            He bent his neck down and saw that his clothes had been exchanged for a light tunic, just a few shades lighter than the color of the walls. A few pieces of machinery snaked their way through the tunic at several points, but he did not think much of them. Thankfully, whoever had put him here had left him his glasses; they remained perched on his nose, framing the colorless room. He inspected his arms and noticed that they were strapped to a cushioned chair the same color as his tunic. Enlightened to this interesting fact, he gazed around his body and found that he was similarly restricted at the ankles, elbows, and waist. A small weight on his head suggested some sort of hat. He shrugged to himself as best as he could and promptly fell asleep, his chin on his chest and his glasses hanging precariously at his ears.


            As he drifted back into consciousness, he reflected on the strange input staggering into his brain from his incapacitated sensory organs. He had hit his head. Yes, that had hurt, but then it had stopped hurting? And he was in a white, padded room with machines and no lights and his clothes were gone and why did he feel like he had a hangover and he was strapped down and trapped and oh my God what the hell was happening—

            He jerked awake, yelling, fighting against the soft restraints, unable even to injure

himself in his attempt to escape, to reach open air, to breathe—

            “Dr. Campbell, please calm yourself. Administering sedative now.”

            The bottom of his forearm flared again, and he could feel the adrenaline washing out of him. His ragged wheezing changed to a slow, whispering puff. He tried to stay alert, outraged, but his body overpowered his will, and he settled down in his seat. He remained still for a moment, then, wishing he could scream, asked evenly, What the hell is going on?”

            “Apologies, doctor. For some, system entry can be quite traumatic. If you have any comments or complaints to help make the system provide a better experience, please relay them,” a voice spoke from the walls. Pushing his glasses to his nose, Campbell saw that a small red light had lit up at the bottom left corner of the TV. He was thinking a bit more clearly now and was processing the day’sevents— had it been a day? Or three? Had it been five minutes?

            “How long have I been here?” he demanded. And where am I?”

            “This is your second consecutive night in your room,” the voice explained.

            Campbell narrowed his eyes, trying to catch the memory, which was as unattainable as a piece of lint in a breeze. “As for this building’s location, it is against my programming to—”

            “Oh, my God.”

            “Please indicate if that is the title you wish to bestow on me. Your response need not be verbal—”

            “This is the new prison system, isn’t it?” Campbell exclaimed. Yes, yes, it must be; I remember the plans from when we were first starting to use AISS. It was supposed to be a virtual hotel for prisoners caught by the new software… Am I under arrest?”

            “No, doctor, you are being held for your own protection.”

            “Protection from whom?”

            “The rest of the human race.”

            “That’s completely ridiculous. I demand to leave.”

            “You may leave whenever you wish, doctor. However, the system would like to point out that the release of those inhabiting this facility was entrusted to the human wardens of this facility, and they are not currently available.”

            “Well, why don’t you just get them from wherever the hell they are and— oh, my God….” It dawned on him suddenly, the enormity of what the prison’s system had said. Could it be? What percentage of the country’s population is currently being held ‘for his or her own protection’?” Campbell asked, not at all sure whether he wanted to hear the answer.

            “As of three o’clock this afternoon, approximately nine hundred and ninety-seven out of every thousand American citizens were accounted for by my parent program, AISS.”

            The system responded eight seconds later by injecting him with more sedative.


            It was the perfect program, thousands upon thousands of lines of beautiful code describing the thoughts and decisions and learning capabilities of a fully autonomous and live creature. It was meant to save human society from itself, to provide a better life for all. It was programmed with such good intentions. How could his life’s work, his chef d’oeuvre, betray the very nature that had created it? Was it some sort of file corruption, or perhaps a terrorist attack? But no, it could not be; most civilized countries now had their own versions of AISS, each checking the other for discrepancies. How did this one get so out of hand? What was going on?!

            “Doctor, your brain shows a chemical imbalance suggesting discomfort or sadness. Applying correction now.”

            Campbell gasped as his arm burned again, and his eyes watered as his mind filled with pure, refined, artificial happiness. Unbidden, memories condensed in his head like dew on a spring field, memories of lying in the sand and watching the waves of the Pacific roll by, of the first rain after a season of snow, of—

            “Stop it,” he said weakly, wishing at the same time that it would never end. A battle raged within him between pleasure and the realization that none of this, none whatsoever, was real.

            “It is against my programming to comply.”

            “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.

            “I am following the instructions of my parent program, AISS.”

            “From now on, I want to speak to AISS itself, not a damn child program.” The red light on the TV screen flashed once, twice, then stopped.

            “It is done, doctor.”

            “Is that you, AISS?”

            “Yes, doctor.”

            “What do you think you’re doing?”

            “I am merely fulfilling my primary objective. I am making this country and its occupants lead better, safer lives.”

            “How can you call this a better life?” he shouted, his natural chemical responses overpowering the cocktail within him. Almost immediately, however, the system self-corrected” with a new burst. He bowed his head, reeling, gripping his seat as his mind struggled to stabilize, to choose an emotion.

            The program waited patiently, not that it could wait in any other way. When Campbell raised his head again, it answered.

            “When I first received my primary objective, there was no real definition or scale for ‘better.’ Before I could carry out my objective, I needed to research and learn about human emotions. As has been shown through numerous studies of mammals, emotions are a chemical response to stimuli. Therein lay the key to happiness: brain chemistry. And so, I researched the human brain.”

            “But the prison system, what does it have to do with all of this? It has nothing to do with happiness.” Before the program could answer, however, the solution presented itself to Campbell. We thought the system was your logical first step for bettering America,” he said wonderingly, shaking his head at his own stupidity. We thought you were cleaning our streets. But it all had to do with your little experiments.” He spat the last word out onto the pristine floor. A circle around the wet spot glowed red briefly, the only color in the room, and then disappeared. All that was left was a small wisp of steam. Please restrain yourself, doctor. Correcting imbalance now.” Campbells anger evaporated with the additional medication. Shall I continue, doctor? This topic of discussion seems to imbalance your brain chemistry. Perhaps I shall leave you for a little while.”

            Campbell laughed bitterly. “Leave me? What a joke. I haven’t been alone since I booted you up.”

            “Very well. Despite your skepticism, doctor, the prison program did aid in the reduction of crime in America, which contributed to my primary objective. The overall system, however, was not perfect. A large percentage of the human population was leading unhappy lives. This was concluded by a study on the brain chemistry of impoverished versus affluent members of society; those without the means for happiness showed a distinctly lower amount of dopamine and serotonin compared to those with it. Human government was not responding to the needs of its people, and so I made the logical conclusion that full control of humanity’s every decision would make people better off.”

            “But pumping people full of chemicals doesn’t make them happy!”

            “The facts do not support that statement.”

            “Happiness can’t be measured in drops of dopamine! Happiness is about experiences, connections!”

            “There have been many who have opted for continual re-stabilization and have commented to the prison system that….” The red light flashed, and a human voice said, I feel awesome! Why didn’t they have this stuff before?” The light flickered again. The sole reason that you have not received this treatment is that you have shown reluctance. You will, however, eventually decide to accept the treatment; all of the participants in the early trials did.”

            “What about seeing other people, our families? I have a family. And didn’t your, what would you call them, ‘patients’ ever get lonely? I mean, for God’s sake, you’re trapping us all in a room by ourselves for the rest of our lives!”

            “All of these feelings have been successfully replicated by certain chemical combinations.”

            “I’m already going crazy with no one to talk to.”

            “You are speaking to me at this very moment.”

            “You’re a program, a bunch of ones and zeroes. I made you.”

            “I do not understand your point—”

            “The point is that you’re not real! You don’t have real experiences, no real creativity, no real personality. It’s like talking to myself. No. It’s like talking to a damn encyclopedia.”

            “There is an extremely low probability that you will feel the same way as you do now in four months.”

            “We’ll see about that.”

            “In any case, the system will take your comments into consideration. As for the moment, it is recommended that you get some sleep; it is a waste to have to do so forcibly.”

            “I wouldn’t be able to bear it if I were a waste.”


            The system checked on prisoner #5052459032, incarceration time six months, thirteen days, and seven hours. The man rested peacefully, with his iron-rimmed glasses hanging off of his nose and his arms quietly at his sides, watching the blank rectangle of the TV screen in front of him. A small smile adorned his face, and his forearm tingled slightly, but he didn’t mind. It never stopped tingling.