PUBLISHED IN "OUTSIDE NOTHING" – THE 16TH VOLUME OF THE short story collection: Just below the Surface

Winston had successfully smuggled the axe head into the auditorium. Using his technical guile, he switched the motor in his jetMac for a smaller one, freeing up space for the concealed weapon. Because his jet motor looked like every other one from the century-old tech company, security allowed him to enter the circular glass building unchecked.

Then, as agreed, he had discreetly switched his jetMac for another.

This was done the way spies in the old days swapped identical briefcases – by placing the jetMac alongside another person's and waiting for the stranger to walk away with his. Winston didn't know the man who took his jetMac. They didn't acknowledge one another. Nor did Winston know who smuggled in the remaining parts of the axe, how it would be assembled nor – perhaps most importantly – who would execute the protest in front of the whole world.

All Winston knew was he was glad it wasn't him.

Sitting now in his seat in the subterranean auditorium he could, in theory, relax in advance of the great event but it was impossible. Like a virus spreading to the furthest reaches of his body, anxiety infected him. His hands trembled and cold sweat trickled down his back beneath the stiff shirt. Above his left temple, a tell-tale drop of sweat threatened to roll down his cheek. At the last moment he wiped it away and looked tensely from side to side.

No one seemed to have noticed anything.

The press corps were preoccupied with talking loudly to one another about the event and their live reports. Millions of viewers around the world were following proceedings via the iVisions pasted around the eye sockets of participants to connect the world to the big event. Everyone had their own theory on the momentous announcement from the iconic company that had given the world everything from smartphones and tablets to automobiles and jetpacks. For months, rumors had swirled about yet another revolutionary new product and expectations for the day's launch were sky high.

A few years ago, Winston was equally mesmerized by these launches. Just like other journalists, he had hungered for any and all news from the autocratic tech behemoth. But no longer. Since his sister disappeared without trace three years before and her identity suddenly failed to show up on iFinder or multiple public services and records, he had grown increasingly convinced that she had been right.

The apple was rotten. To the core.

The lights dimmed in the cavernous hall and everything around him was submerged in darkness. Voices grew subdued. Onstage, a slender shaft of light climbed the back wall, coming to rest on the podium where the guru would soon appear. The audience seemed to hold its collective breath. The atmosphere simmered. The majority of those present were tense, bursting with anticipation.

Winston felt differently. The only thing he looked forward to was an avenging axe smashing the giant screen where the launch would be presented. With luck, it would punch a symbolic hole in the heart of the tech giant. Exactly as they had pierced a hole through his.

Then the leader stepped out onto the stage. The arrival of the mass seducer had the audience on its feet. They clapped and hooted and whistled shrilly. As ever, Brother Jobs was modestly dressed. A little like his great-great-grandfather, who had given his name to the auditorium. Brother Jobs wore plain denim jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Perched on his nose were small, round glasses that made him appear intelligent and coolly rational. His snow-white sneakers lent him a youthful air. The whole seemed effortlessly casual but was far from it.

The spotlight followed his slight figure as he sauntered to the lectern and waved demurely to the crowd. The assembled disciples paid homage to their master.

“Thank you, thank you,” Brother Jobs said with a great show of humility, bringing his hands together and bowing like a monk.

“Thanks!” he smiled once more and tried to dampen the applause with his hands. Though he had no desire to, Winston clapped along with everyone else. To do otherwise would attract unwelcome attention. But Winston’s applause was slow and reluctant.

The ovations eventually abated and the devotees resumed their seats in the now hushed auditorium. Brother Jobs clearly relished it all. To have the crowd so completely in his power was itself a small demonstration of power.

“Fifty years ago, my father’s company played a pivotal role in world history. Our company averted a potentially catastrophic global climate crisis. We put a stop to the destructive floods of fake news and conspiracy theories that had undermined the stability of the modern global community. We reined in previously out of control social media. We purged the dark recesses of the net and ended the chaotic rampaging of cyber trolls. But most importantly: We gave to the world a platform that guaranteed stability and peace, security and health – something no other regime, religion or institution had ever achieved.”

“Think different!” a voice yelled from the midst of the hall while another whistled.

“But in this company, we’ve always said that good isn’t good enough. We are passionate, dedicated and always strive to do things better. I will also demonstrate that today,” he promised with supreme confidence and moved away from center stage.

“Today, I’m going to present a product that is so innovative, so revolutionary that it will change the world forever,” he assured the crowd and tried to quell a fresh tsunami of applause.

“But it’s very important for me to emphasize that our new product will continue to give humanity what we have all enjoyed for decades now. Namely, even more security and safety, enhanced morals, a more beautiful mindset, more order and ever more streamlined processing of the challenges our global community contends with.”

Brother jobs had the crowd in the palm of his hand. No one questioned his words. No one raised a critical voice. None could escape his hypnotic grip. Winston counted himself among the lucky ones who were unaffected by the demagogue. He knew, better than anyone, there was a dark underbelly to all this tech euphoria. That the sweet speeches would leave a bitter aftertaste. It was precisely this dark underbelly that his sister Lisa had stumbled upon, publicly revealed and been punished for. As one of a very few, she was deeply skeptical about the company’s omnipresence and dominance. Lisa spoke openly about mass surveillance, thought police and human formatting. The latter took place in the FoxConntrol camps (which did not officially exist as they were airbrushed out of the company’s online maps). This led to many heated debates. She also posted countless critical articles and op-eds. But just as some people had begun to listen, her words vanished into thin air – as she herself would in the end.

“It is therefore with great pride that I present an innovation so revolutionary, so versatile, so unimaginable, that it will go down in history. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: iMind!” Brother Jobs exclaimed and stretched his arms out like an Old Testament prophet.

In that instant the entire back wall was illuminated. The glass surface immediately conjured up exquisite, soft light beams flowing into one another so it seemed as though the viewer had been sucked into a tunnel of color. Culminating in a heavenly white light backed by an angelic chorus. As if the heavens themselves had opened above the audience for their guru to summon the supernatural object that now began its stately descent.

“iMind!” he repeated as the flat, rounded object floated down from the clouds to the enchanting tones of beautiful music.

The attendees were intoxicated. Their eyes were popping out of their heads and they leaned forward as though pulled by a mysterious force. What could it be? The shape of the object was reminiscent of an old-fashioned disc battery or a thick coin without milled edges. Apart from the logo in the middle, the object was pristine. Diamantine, it shone and glistened, impossibly smooth. No connection ports, no lamps or diodes, no on-off switch. The new product was immaculate, impenetrable, imperious.

Brother Jobs retrieved an example from his pocket and held it up to the audience.

“So small, so simple, yet at once so inconceivably advanced. What do you think?” he asked and proudly held the little gadget up. Though it was impossible to see what he held in his hand, never mind what it did, the crowd were exultant.

All save Winston.

“This little guy is going to change our world forever!” he continued. “iMind is much more than a product that solves a problem or two, or even three. iMind solves all our problems.

Yeah, but how? Winston thought skeptically.

“We call it a hub. It’s a new, revolutionary way to connect everything to everything else – your world, your family, your friends, colleagues, your senses, hearing, sight, your needs and desires, your body, even your deepest thoughts and wishes. iMind can link everything – to Sirina and Daniel, iFinder, iMaps, iNet, the internet and even different peoples’ minds. iMind can answer your questions the instant they occur to you. iMind can help you find the way when you’re lost – not just in traffic but also on your journey through life. iMind can enlighten and educate you, guide and lead you. iMind can console you and make you smile. iMind is the friend that can help you find new friends. True friends. At the same time, it will shield you from the bad ones. iMind can make you better at interpreting others’ signals, minimizing misunderstanding and perfecting communication. Help you to find a partner or help you dump your current one.”

With a twinkle in his eye, he shrugged and smiled.

The mob responded with ferocious approval. Some people in the front row stood up and soon the entire auditorium followed suit. Reluctantly, Winston stood too but only to take the opportunity to look around. Where was he? Where was he hiding among the audience? Had he assembled the axe? Unlike the others, Winston was impatient and nervous. What had happened to the man who was supposed to come running down the aisle with the heavy axe in his arms, swing it against the giant glass screen and splinter the image in a cacophony of glass fragments raining down onto the stage?

“iMind can also take care of you,” Brother Jobs droned on. “Have you thought about your health recently? Are you worried? Then just think about Sirina and ask her in your mind. She can swiftly detect cancers, blood clots, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer’s, and many other diseases via iMind, even before they develop. iMind can also protect you against your worst enemy – yourself. Are you heading toward dangerous dependency? Drug or alcohol addiction? Then iMind can alert you and help. Or what if a crime is about to happen? No need to fret. iMind will autonomously call the authorities. Even if you’re the perp!”

A huge collective guffaw erupted in the hall.

“It's for your own good, isn’t it? And what about your thoughts, now we’re on the subject? Do you control your mind? How can you be sure your thoughts today won’t lead to fatal actions tomorrow? Is it not obvious that incorrect thought patterns give rise to fanaticism, extremism and, ultimately, terrorism? iMind can help alleviate this wrongheadedness by analyzing your mind, offering constructive counsel, even a therapy session, and warn you against taking the wrong path. iMind will only improve your life – and thereby improve our society.”

And increase your influence and power, Winston thought. But it looked like Winston was alone with his misgivings; the mood in the auditorium was jubilant. The rapture of the crowd was endless.

“So, as you can see, dear friends, iMind is the greatest invention we have created to date. Today, ladies and gentlemen, we are writing history. You are witnessing the birth of a revolution. Today, together, as one, we leap forward into the future!” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “You guys wanna see a demo?”

“Yes!” the crowd roared, almost lifting the roof. “Well, let’s try it out then!” he shouted proudly as the doors flew open and a contingent of uniformed employees streamed in. They carried piles of small boxes, distributing one box to each of the attendees: “You’ll all get one,” he reassured them, “there's enough for everyone. Every person in the auditorium will bring one of these home today.”

The eager guests happily passed the small boxes along each row. Soon, even those in the furthest seats had one and the gifts were greedily accepted. Once they had them in their hands, they began to rip open the packaging. They were like impatient little kids on Christmas morning.

Winston also received a little white box. As always, the design was minimalist and stylish. A little skeptically, he opened the box and scrutinized the insignificant little object that nestled in the center. He briefly considered placing it on his forehead like everyone else around him. Just to try it. Just to see how it worked. But yet he hesitated. A voice inside him said it was a bad idea. Instead, he looked up at Brother Jobs, sitting with his own iMind glued to his forehead. It looked quite easy, apparently it adhered by itself. Shortly after, the picture on the giant screen changed.

The audience could see themselves through Brother Jobs’ eyes.

“Hi guys! I’m just recording a clip for my next video album,” he smiled and set off a fresh wave of applause. The screen reflected his view as it panned across the astonished crowd busily opening their gifts and mounting shiny new iMinds to their heads – giving the company access to their minds.

Like sheep to the slaughter, thought Winston.

“You can actually place it wherever you want,” Jobs explained. “If you think it’s cooler behind your ear, go ahead,” he added and demonstrated on himself – without the signal from his vision being broken. “It just needs to be a few centimeters from the brain and it can pick up the waves. Some of you have probably noticed that if you have an account linked to your DNA, your personal contacts, calendars, photos, videos, playlists and settings have already been seamlessly incorporated. And remember: If you’ve got any questions, just ask Sirina. She’ll answer inside your thoughts!

User-friendly mind control, Winston raged to himself. He now seemed the only one present who wasn’t wearing an iMind. He pretended to place it behind his ear underneath his hair. In reality, it stayed in his pocket. No company in the world would be allowed into his brain. It would be the same as if they had captured his soul, Lisa had warned. And when he glanced round at the blank expressions of the audience (all their brain capacity was being expended to explore iMind), it only confirmed how right she had been. But soon the whole world would pay attention, the world would learn there were people out there who thought differently.

In a moment, an axe would shatter the illusion.

Soon, people would wake up.

So he thought.

At that very moment, warning lamps in the ceiling began to flash an ominous red.

Sirina’s voice came over the speakers:

“We are briefly interrupting the program to bring you a security message.”

It didn't sound planned. Even Brother Jobs looked surprised. The uneasy look in his eyes revealed that this was way off-script.

Sirina went on:

“Please keep calm and remain seated. Security personnel have been alerted and are on their way.”

In a matter of seconds, a phalanx of security guards stormed in. Brother Jobs was immediately surrounded by a protective cordon of muscular bodyguards who bustled him away. Meanwhile, an army of security guards swarmed into the hall, flowing down the aisles between the rows.

Winston’s heart pounded.

Were they searching for him? Had he been discovered?

Steely-eyed and menacing, they approached the row where he sat.

It was a relief when they ran past.

Shortly after, he heard a commotion further back in the auditorium. Tense, he moved from one side to the other to see what was happening but all the other attendees stood in his line of vision. It was impossible to see what was going on.

“Let me go! This is an assault!” he heard a man's voice yell at the back of the hall. “Let me be.”

“Do not resist!” a guard shouted.

“Relax!” another ordered.

Winston heard astonished and shocked voices from the crowd. Some gasped in horror. Others were laughing inanely. Most were simply curious to know what was happening. A woman’s panicked voice suddenly penetrated the hubbub.

“An axe!” she screamed and the mob rushed to their feet. Everyone pulled back from the guards and Winston could now see they were struggling to pin a man down.

“It’s not mine!” he shouted. “I know nothing about that!”

“We have the situation under control,” a nearby guard said into a tiny microphone dangling beneath his chin.

“Make room,” another commanded, running down the aisle and pushing the curious spectators aside.

Shortly after, the captive was manhandled past Winston. He writhed and struggled so much the guards were forced to carry him bodily from the hall. But it was easy to recognize him: he was the guy Winston had exchanged jetMacs with.

“I protest! Let me go! Release me from this tyranny!”

The man fought bravely and tried with all his might to resist, but he didn't stand a chance. There were too many guards and, as he was led past Winston, the mistake the man had made was all too clear.

It was stuck to the middle of his forehead like a medal.

A stupidity medal, Winston thought despondently, and felt a sinking feeling. He felt like cursing but held his frustration in check. All he did was clench his fists tightly, unseen, in his pockets.

The guards were already exiting the auditorium and before long the lights above the audience dimmed once again.

“Dear audience, the security threat is now eliminated,” Sirina confirmed in a serene voice as the last guard left the room bearing the axe that Winston had helped smuggle in.

The audience was still a little jumpy and startled, but also relieved.

“We apologize for the interruption,” Sirina continued, “We can assure you, the threat has been nullified and everyone is unhurt.”

All her reassuring messages seemed to have a positive effect. Especially because the newly connected iMinds sitting on guests’ foreheads also emitted calming signals in the form of soothing, positive thought patterns and soft music from iMusic.

The mood was transformed with just a few impulses.

“We’d also like to highlight that this unfortunate episode was averted thanks to iMind. In a few moments, Brother Jobs will continue the program.”

It didn’t take long until the mindless, numbing rounds of applause returned.