PERMUTATIONS OF THE SOUL
Yesterday the number of millionaires peaked across the nation. The chance of the average person achieving everything they ever dreamed of was… well, it was very high. No doubt, the Fortune Teller knew the exact probability. But the man about to interview me wasn’t a millionaire. His fortune was immeasurable, possibly second only to the man who invented the Fortune Teller himself. So much hinged on first impressions. Normally I would have stressed over such things, but not now. Now there was no need.
I tapped the screen of my Fortuband. The screen flickered blue, highlighting the time: twenty-five minutes to go. The wristband came with clocks now. And GPS. And camera. And television. No doubt, the people who made these applications were millionaires too.
Shade from the huge domed office block behind me flickered across the screen as the midday sun peaked behind it.
“Should I arrive at the interview early,” I typed into my Fortuband.
The Fortune Teller’s response flickered back within seconds. Based on the employer’s hiring record, the probability of reaching your Lifestination is higher if you arrive early.
I readjusted my royal blue skirt and perfectly pleated shirt. My Fortuband had computed it was the best choice for this particular employer. I tapped my Fortuband again: twenty-three minutes. I turned to the monstrosity towering behind me. It was an odd choice, but when I’d scrolled through the employment pages my Fortuband suggested a high probability of achieving my future goals with this job. I didn’t even like mathematics or computers and my knowledge of technology was slim. Yet here I was.
“Nylie!” a male voice sang out behind me. “Nylie!”
I turned. He was older, but those familiar dark brown eyes were the same as I remembered them. “Drake, is that you?”
He ran; hugged me. His comforting embrace lasted longer than it should; his nose cooled my cheek. Whether it was him hanging on longer or me, I didn’t know.
“How long’s it been, Nylie?” he asked, eventually pulling away.
I shrugged. Something in my voice couldn’t let me speak even though I knew exactly how long.
I often wondered what choices I would have had to make to run into him again. Would I have to lurk around bookstores and galleries? I’d always been too scared to plug in a Lifestination for meeting him again. What if the Fortune Teller told me the probability was low. And yet here he was, fourteen years later, looking the same as he always had. The only differences were a few grey hairs peeking through his fringe and goatee, which suited him.
“He-llo” I stumbled on the word. I took a deep breath and wiped a sweaty palm on my skirt. “Do you work here?” I asked, recomposing myself. What was the chance he was working where I possibly could be? Was this what my Fortuband had computed all along?
“Here?” Drake snorted with derision. “Heavens no! Just doing an interview for the Times on how they’re getting people’s hopes up. Please don’t tell me you’re a believer.”
My eyes automatically went to my Fortuband.
His followed. “Guess everyone gets curious at some point.” He looked up from my wrist. “I have a few spare minutes. Do you want to get a coffee?”
“I have an interview in twenty minutes,” I said to Drake, while typing at the same time. It had become automatic now and I didn’t really notice I was typing until Drake sighed. I glanced down for the response, trying to make it seem like I wasn’t looking at it.
Probability of reaching chosen Lifestination is highest if you attend the interview early.
Why? Why would it say that? I’d trusted all of its predications and suggestions to date, but now…
Drake clasped my wrist, covering the screen. “Really? Don’t you get sick of living for your Lifestination rather than living for the moment?”
“No. Don’t you get sick of making life altering choices without guidance?” There was confidence and cockiness in my voice but doubt lingered in my throat as if it were choking me. I’d never had reason to question my Fortuband. It had secured a good job and helped me pick a great investment property.
“Maybe I could call you afterwards?” I asked.
“Sure.” The pain in his voice hit me in the chest. He handed over a business card. “Assuming your gadget lets you call.” The tone of his voice felt like the air had been sucked from him. I wanted to explain.
“It gives me direction. I’m now confident where I’m going.”
“And where is that? What is this fabulous Lifestination you’re basing all your decisions on?”
“I can’t… It’s silly. And personal.”
“Fair enough. I guess I might speak to you later.” He turned on his heel and left.
A gasp escaped me as he walked away. This couldn’t be right.
“Should I run after him?” I typed.
The probability of reaching your Lifestination is best if you go to the interview early.
Maybe I had the wrong Lifestination. They always said to be specific and I was the queen of vague. I could reprogram it.
I typed a new destination. “Be happily married to Drake in two years’ time.”
The best probability of reaching your Lifestination is by attending the interview early.
“’Tell the future’. My sweet arse cheeks you do.” I wanted to hurl it away, but then what. Wander aimlessly forever not knowing what might happen.
It was okay. The Fortune Teller knew. It knew it would be okay. I tried to reassure myself, as Drake’s figure disappeared around the corner at the end of the street.
“So any mathematical or computer experience?” asked the interviewer as he readjusted his striped navy blue tie.
I looked down at my PBS band. “Should I lie?” I typed.
Probability of reaching Lifestination is best if you don’t.
I shook my head.
“I guess you’re wondering how accurate it is right now, sending you to an interview for which you have no experience?” he asked.
“You have no idea.” How could it let Drake go? Sure, I could call, but the look on his face when I’d rejected him told me it was unlikely he’d forgive me. That was if he’d even given me a correct phone number.
“Are you okay, Nylie?” the interviewer asked.
“Yes. I normally believe, I’m just a bit…”
“Lost?” he offered.
I shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“I never feel lost because I always know where I’m headed and how to get there. No matter how painful the road.”
“What was your Lifestination?” I asked.
“Six figure income and smoking hot wife by the time I was
thirty. Guess what?”
“You achieved your goal.”
He clasped his hands together. “The probability was high. Mind you, I had to put in the effort. I completed three degrees, a postdoctoral, and killed a guy.” He smiled with a fleeting twitch of his lips. “I’m joking of course.”
I was inclined to believe him. Premeditated murder by someone with a Fortuband was almost down to zero. Why would anyone commit a crime if the Fortuband suggested a high probability of incarceration? Or so the statistics suggested.
“What Lifestination did you program?” he asked.
“It’s complicated.” It was my standard response.
“I tried asking for a seven figure income after I reached thirty, but the probability was low. Seemed odd. Of all the investments I could’ve made surely there was some choice that could lead me there.” He typed something into his Fortuband. “A lot of people come here looking to be billionaires, to snag a partner interested in knowing someone who works at Fortuband International. I don’t know what you’re looking for, but my Fortuband tells me the probability of reaching my new Lifestination is best if I don’t give you this particular job.”
“This is a pretty peculiar interview.”
“Interview? The Fortune Teller has collected all your data, your social media, your consumption habits. It knows you aren’t likely to bring extra wealth to the company. I’m sorry.” He cocked his head to the side in a sympathetic gesture. “This might not be the interview that brings you fame and fortune but if your Fortuband suggested you come here, then there will be a reason.” He typed something into his own Fortuband. “I do have a minor position, but it doesn’t pay well. I don’t get too many applications for that kind of work these days… just wait a second. I’ll see what it says.”
He tapped his Fortuband again and again. His face grew pasty white as if the blood had drained from his soul.
“Not to worry,” he choked on the words. “Someone somewhere made a decision, an action that’s altered my path. It happened before but I’ll get it right again.” There was little confidence in his voice. “I was going to offer you a job in the warehouse but it’s telling me that either way the probability of reaching my Lifestination will drop. Silly machine.” He swallowed hard and wiped his hands on his pants. “Excuse me, I just need…” He stood abruptly, making the chair legs squeal against the floor. “Check your Fortuband and let reception know if you want the job,” he mumbled, and then rushed from the room.
Joe, my supervisor in the warehouse, looked like a geriatric fisherman. His floppy hat concealed part of his bushy eyebrows. “Labels gotta be stuck on all them boxes here.” He pointed to the shelf before me.
“Labels? I’m labelling boxes?”
“Yep, them boxes gotta be shipped out before tomorrow.”
“Are you serious?”
He nodded towards my Fortuband. “You tell me.”
I typed in a simple question, “stay or go?”
Its response was just as simple and mindboggling. I
reached for the data-labeller.
“Just roll it over the face of the box.”
“And I have to do this entire shelf? There are hundreds of boxes here.”
“This shelf and all of those.” He looked down the aisle with shelves spanning as far as I could see. “Right down to them boxes on row W1.” He left me alone with the mind-boggling monotony my Fortuband believed was a good choice.
By row C1, I started questioning the Fortuband before I began each new row. Was this really the right decision and each time it answered the same. By row K1, I started questioning my Fortuband’s decision every new box, simply for a chance to rest my sore wrists.
“Wanna get a bite?” Joe’s broad brooding frame towered alongside me as I labelled the last box on the shelf.
Was he talking about fishing or eating? I looked at my Fortuband. It was hardly worth questioning it, and yet my fingers acted on impulse.
The probability of reaching your Lifestination is 99% if you go. It responded with little black letters like flies that I wanted to swat away. I faked a smile.
Joe must’ve taken it as a “yes” and walked to a cramped office at the back of the warehouse. From the desk, he opened a metal lunch box and pulled out a limp sandwich wrapped in cling film.
He lumbered himself onto a cheap plastic stool and offered me half.
I could’ve been sipping lattes with Drake; instead, I was labelling crates and eating sweaty slimy sandwiches with a grizzly old fisherman.
“So what brings you to work here?” he asked, shoving half a sandwich into his gob and scratching his arse with the other hand.
I held up my Fortuband. It was odd. I hadn’t seen him use his all day. Perhaps he’d given up, or maybe the probability of reaching any desirable Lifestination was low.
“And what is it you want in life?”
“And what is the probability you’ll reach your complicated Lifestination?” he asked.
“High and it’s risen higher since I got here.” I looked around the dingy office. Old coffee mugs dotted the desk; a fishy smell lingered in the room, coming either from the unwashed mugs or from Joe; and Miss November flashed her posterior at me from a locker door making me want to flee.
“So you trust it? You’ve no reason to doubt your Fortuband? You’ve never complained about it online or in a public forum?”
“What?” It seemed a strange question, but then again he was a strange man.
“Have you seen the Fortune Teller yet?”
I shook my head. “I thought that was off limits?”
“It’s guarded, but only to stop terrorists entering. There was an attack about five years ago. They tried to blow it up.”
“Really?” My mind boggled at the thought. Life without direction. Life without guidance. “Why? Was it some disgruntled person unhappy their Lifestination didn’t eventuate?”
“No. It was someone off the grid, who didn’t like everyone’s choices being dictated by a machine and mathematics.”
“That’s crazy. Choices aren’t dictated. It’s just guidance. It makes people think about their choices. It stopped that whaling ship last year tipping the species over the edge into extinction.”
“You don’t have to convince me. I got one of those.” He tapped his Fortuband. “But then again. How many times did you use yours today? Is it guiding or controlling? What’s the point of reaching a wonderful destination if the path is so torturous? I see doubt in your eyes.”
An alarm sounded in the distance.
“Geez, them breaks get shorter every day.” He grumbled, dropping the rest of his sandwich in his box.
“So what’s next?” I sighed. I tried to make my voice sound a little less deflated, but the thought of sticking on more labels grinded at my soul.
“Deliveries.” He looked towards Miss November. “Special deliveries. Do you have phone capabilities in your Fortuband?”
“Can I have your number?”
“I thought maybe we could catch up after work for a proper meal.”
My stomach churned. “Ummm …” I tried to form a polite response in my mind. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t you want to check your Fortuband?”
I did so. And wished I hadn’t.
He held out a pen, as if he knew what the answer would be. Then offered the back of his sweaty grimy hand.
I scribbled down my number, hoping that maybe the Fortuband knew from medical records that Joe sweated a lot and my number would rub off before the end of the day.
“Thanks.” He walked past Miss November and pulled out a parcel from the locker. “Can you run this delivery upstairs?”
“New Fortuband for an employee.”
“Oh.” I took the package in my arms. “Lots of packaging.”
“Bubble wrap,” he replied simply. “Guess you’ll get to see the Fortune Teller. And on your first day, mind you. Excited?”
“Sure,” I mumbled. I was anything but excited. Labelling and deliveries. How was this leading me to the life I wanted?
“Delivery for…” I peered at the label on the parcel. “Mr Chang.” I handed over the identity chip administration had given me.
The security guard didn’t even look at it. Instead, he typed in his Fortuband without giving me a second glance.
He typed in a code on the keypad adjacent the metal doors and they slid open. He looked at the label on my package. “You’ll find him on the third row, twenty stations down.”
I guessed probability suggested I wasn’t a threat based on my online profile.
The setup inside was like an industrial warehouse, but conveyor belts were replaced with rows of desks and computers, the hair nets normally seen in a factory were replaced with headsets, and instead of walls, the Fortune Teller loomed. Her circuitry cast green light on workers’ faces like strobe lighting at a disco.
I followed the security guard’s directions. No one looked up as I passed. All eyes gazed at their computer screens or Fortubands as they plugged away at their work, hoping that it would lead to their Lifestination.
“Mr Chang?” I asked as I approached the twentieth workstation.
The man looked up from the desk while still typing. “What’s this?” He flicked his fringe out of his eyes with a swish of his head, his hands obviously too busy to perform the task.
“Really?” He stopped typing and looked at the parcel.
“What are you computing?” I looked at the jumble of figures and text on his screen.
“None of us calculate anything, just find, catalogue and feed information into the Fortune Teller. Medical records, video, online posts, shopping preferences… anything that we can find, anything that might shape a person’s future.”
The towering computer loomed along the warehouse wall. “Is it really magical?”
“Magic?” he scoffed. “If I drop this.” He picked up a coffee mug. “What would happen?”
“Isn’t that predicting the future? The Fortune Teller just deals with more variables and far more complex scenarios.” He tapped the package. “So what is it?”
“Replacing a Fortuband I believe.”
“Odd. I don’t recall—”
My phone interrupted him. “Excuse me.”
“Nylie,” Joe’s voice whispered from the other end. “Sorry the package might have been mislabelled.”
“Typical,” I said to myself. I looked up at Mr Chang. “Sorry. They made an error.” I picked up the parcel and walked towards the door. “Where does it need to go then?” I realised there was annoyance in my voice that I could no longer conceal.
“You see the aisle closest to the door?”
“Walk to it casually.”
“I’m taking you to the owner of the package. Please, trust me.”
Walking casually on purpose was harder than it sounded.
“Now, above you there’s a security camera,” said Joe. “When it turns to the back wall, you need to walk down that aisle to the front wall. Towards the Fortune Teller.” His voice was different—more formal, more confident.
“What? Joe, what am I doing?”
“You’re walking. Now!”
I wanted to ask my Fortuband for advice but my legs acted on impulse. “Won’t these workers question what I’m doing? I’m questioning what I’m doing?”
“I’m sure they’re too busy with work; and even if they were, you’re squeaky clean. Their Fortubands have no reason to doubt what you’ll do in the future. You’ve always been a believer. Tell me, Nylie. Are you still a believer?”
“Yes.” A lump caught in my throat as I thought of Drake. “My Lifestination has a high probability. I trust the Fortuband will suggest the right choices to lead me there.” The Fortune Teller loomed close. It jutted from the wall, almost as if it were about to fall on me. Crush me. Suffocate me.
“Okay, then. Let it make one more choice for you. In the package is a small box. I need you to set it down near the Fortune Teller and turn the switch.”
“Switch? What switch?”
My legs almost buckled beneath me. “I can’t do that. It’ll disable everything. It’ll destroy millions of lives.”
“Destroy?” The tone of Joe’s voice had changed. There was life and vitality resonating down the receiver. “Destroy or set free?”Sweat trickled down the back of my neck; the green circuitry blurred.
“Nylie, I could give you a speech about how life is about the journey not the destination, but I don’t need to. I know you will do this. And I don’t have time. The security camera will come back in your direction soon.”
“How do you know I’ll do this? I need my Fortuband.”
“Let’s just say I’m an old style fortune teller. Nylie, you’re running out of time.”
I opened the parcel. A big red shiny switch gazed at me. It was screaming at me to turn it on. And yet every pore in my body was screaming at me to run away.
“If you are so trusting in your Fortuband, use it,” suggested Joe. “I gotta go. The security guards are here. I wondered how long it would be before they tracked my real profile. I need you to finish this, Nylie.”
The sound of footsteps and shouting bellowed down the receiver and then it went dead.
I swallowed hard and typed into my Fortuband.
Lifestination a hundred percent achievable if you flick the switch. There was no hesitation in its reply. There was no sentient factor built in to save the Fortune Teller. Maths and probability had no reason to doubt me. Probability couldn’t save it now.
I turned the switch, and almost immediately, the Fortune Teller’s lights dimmed then went black. Hundreds of faces looked up from their computers. Hundreds of fingers tapped at their Fortubands. Hundreds of faces looked distraught. Feet stood still. No one knew what choice to make. I looked at the black screen of my Fortuband. There was no guidance but there was an odd feeling inside, which I once recognised as instinct, telling me to get out of there before security guards arrived.
Outside, cars stood still and pedestrians looked down to their unresponsive saviours. I took my Fortuband off and put it in my pocket.
“Nylie!” Drake ran towards me. What were the chances? My fingers tapped my wrist and felt nothing but skin and goosebumps pricking my skin. Yet the air was warm.
“Did you hear?” he asked with a hint of excitement. “The Fortune Teller has been disabled.”
Screeching tyres interrupted us as the media arrived.“Yes. I heard.” I couldn’t help but smile. He was here.
Drake obviously took the smile to mean something else. “Were you involved with this?” He stuck his thumb towards the towering monstrosity. There was wonder in his eyes.
I smiled, letting him in to my secret.
“You never told me what your end point was,” said Drake. “But, I guess it doesn’t matter now.” He returned my smile.
No, it didn’t matter.
“You know I don’t believe they worked anyway,” said Drake. “You can program probability and odds and causality till the cows come home, but I’d rather just live in the moment and see where it leads.”
Blue lights shimmered on the building as the police arrived.
I slipped my hand in his and he interlaced his fingers around mine. I don’t know who or what told me to do that, but it felt right. “We should go have that coffee.”
“When it gets back online there are going to be a lot of pissed people who want their money back for that piece of junk,” complained Drake.
“I don’t know.” My Lifestination always had a high probability. They always suggested that precise Lifestinations were best, but my vague little word “happiness” seemed to have panned out. “I think it works perfectly.”
Food for thought
It is that age-old question of predetermination, and what is the nature of happiness? If every action has a finite set of consequences then it is feasible to think the probability can be determined and the equation reversed to determine what a person needs to do to achieve a certain outcome. But the philosophical quandary is how much of life can be lived in the moment versus planned for the future we desire? And which will make us happiest?
About the Author
Melanie Rees is an Australian speculative fiction author. Her work has appeared in markets such as Apex, Aurealis, Daily Science Fiction and Cosmos. This story first appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine. You can find out more about this and other stories at www.flexirees.wordpress.com or on Twitter @FlexiRees.
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