Katja Kiel teleported her brigade into the center of the World Parliament. The entire area exploded. Everyone, allies and enemies, died instantaneously.
"You've got to be kidding me." Katja took off her virtual reality helmet angrily, shaking her head to send her bunned up hair cascading back down her back. "Why would they rig their own parliament?"
"If they knew you could teleport, why wouldn't they?" The scenario designer asked back challengingly. "Now do it again, this time without dying."
"Autumn?" Katja grudgingly spoke into her headset.
"Yes?" Autumn replied through the intercom, hooked into her own computer in her own room.
"We're trying again. This time have a TK barrier around the entire team before I even make the leap and keep it up throughout." Katja ordered.
"Roger. Sorry about that, it never occurred to me they'd blow themselves up." Autumn apologized.
"It never occurred to me either. But I guess our game designers have some creative thinkers. Don't worry about it. We're doing this to learn after all." Katja reassured Autumn. She put her headset back on and told her team to form up into as small an area as possible and not to leave Autumn's zone of control. No casualties ever is hard. How would MDT handle this situation? They wouldn't have Autumn's defensive abilities. I can worry about that later. For now I have to lead AT to victory over a bunch of septuagenarian bureaucrats. You'd think this wouldn't be so hard.
Katja Kiel teleported her brigade into the center of the World Parliament. The entire area exploded. The flames licked at the borders of an invisible bubble surrounding her team, but completely devoured everyone else in the building. Katja looked around for someone who survived the explosion, but there was nothing. The walls of the building had blown apart, and she was now looking into the outside lawn. The roof fell in on them, and it too bounced off and settled over Autumn's protective sphere.
"Congratulations. You win!" The game's mascot did a little dance for them. Katja sighed. "Okay, team. I know it took a lot of skill and effort, but I guess we should teleport home and break out the champagne."
Ardut Singh laughed appreciatively. Everyone held hands again and they teleported back to base. Katja removed her helmet to glare at her manager again. "What was the point of that? We already knew the answer."
"You didn't know if Autumn's TK barrier would hold." The game designer pointed out.
"Isn't it invincible?" Katja asked, surprised.
"Negative, Katja. Enough force can break my barrier. I think it's something like three megatons maximum." Autumn informed Katja through her headset.
"What has more force than three megatons?" Katja asked.
"A nuclear weapon. Or a natural disaster." Toland replied.
"Christ. So if they'd just rigged the parliament with a nuke we'd have lost again?" Katja realized.
"They weren't ready to lose an entire city to kill us." Hitomi commented blankly.
"But next time they could be, when they realize conventional explosives didn't work. Christ. We can't teleport into any obvious location, can we?" Katja looked at her manager, who returned an enigmatic smile.
Azusa can tell me where my targets are, but she can't tell me what inanimate objects they've decided to gather around them. I have to do this better. Could we teleport to a nearby location, destroy the world parliament, and then teleport away again before they can react? But was this even a job for AT anymore? If she was going to fight like that, she should have brought Aisia.
"I'm so confused." Katja moaned. "What are you trying to tell me, that all of our abilities are worthless?"
"I just work here." Her manager shrugged. "I'm giving you questions, you have to find the answers. I can't be there when the fighting breaks out, giving you tips. It's up to the force commander to be able to recognize problems and find solutions in real time when the real war begins."
"I know." Katja sighed. Her role had sounded so glamorous when she'd been awarded with it. But now she had no idea how to preserve her team or use their abilities effectively. "Okay everyone. Let's try our next target. We'll presume they've rigged the president's house with a nuclear weapon. So Toland, I want you to accelerate as big a chunk of metal as you can carry with you into the west wing. Let's see if we can take the bastards out from three miles."
"Roger that." Toland agreed, fetching a hunk of slag with his game avatar from their warehouse of infinite conjured goods.
* * *
Autumn yawned and rubbed her eyes, slumping her head down onto her arms, her hair spilling out over her forearms and onto the desk as well as down her back.
"Are you okay?" Kip asked, though all he really wanted to do was reach out and stroke that hair so tantalizingly close while she was off guard.
"I'm not okay. Because Mother says I have to tutor you from breakfast to dinner, we have to do all our training at night. When am I supposed to sleep, hmm?" Autumn complained, her eyes closed in a comfortable, 'I'm not sleeping, I'm resting,' format.
"I guess if I told you I know everything now you wouldn't believe me, huh." Kip suggested halfheartedly.
"Of course not. What did we even talk about yesterday? I don't remember teaching you anything." Autumn mumbled into her arms.
"I gave up being a Christian." Kip reminded her helpfully.
"Oh. That." Autumn didn't sound impressed at all. "So?" Autumn lifted her head and opened her electric blue eyes to look into Kip's brown eyes challengingly. "Don't you have any questions for me?"
"Let's see then. You say you're collectivists, but you're also. . ." Kip couldn't force himself to say the forbidden word. He stumbled to a halt.
"Say it." Autumn's eyes narrowed, gripping his like a hypnotic snake.
"Meritocratic." Kip felt a surge of panic run all the way up his spine, like God would strike him down with lightning right there on the spot. But God didn't exist, so nothing happened. Kip swallowed the acid that had painfully filled up his throat all the way from his stomach.
"Say 'merit' three times." Autumn coached.
"I. . .isn't the once enough?" Kip's acid was already creeping back up his esophagus at just the thought.
"Don't be a baby." Autumn replied.
"Merit, merit, merit." Kip forced himself.
"Seriously, did they implant a chip in you or something? It's just a word." Autumn chided him, even though he'd fulfilled her wish. A was A, after all. Kip sighed.
"It's not just a word. It's the forbidden word. It's. . .even thinking the word is so dangerous and so wrong that you're stained with it forever. . . if you say the word once in your life, you can no longer testify in court, you're considered so polluted! You can go to jail for it!" Kip Miles complained in anguish.
"Well here it's a required word. And you live here now, if you haven't noticed. Merit. There. Did I just grow horns or a tail?" Autumn leaned back and posed, one arm on her head and the other on her waist.
"No." Kip admitted.
"So you think the exact same about me as before?" Autumn asked, raising her eyebrows.
"Yes." Kip admitted.
"There you go. Words only have whatever power you give them, Kip. Labels, curse words, insults, 'hate speech,' it's all the same sham. If you refuse to accept any of it, they can't control you anymore. We can make up our own minds if people or good or bad, without relying on buzz words they say, or their opponents say about them. Just look to the heart of what they're saying and ask yourself if it's good. How they said it, why they said it, none of it matters. Nothing they pretend matters, matters, Kip. That's how they manage to win debates. Nothing the outside world has said has been true for centuries, but they've still convinced everyone on Earth to agree with them. They stopped arguing about what long ago, because they realized monkeys don't have to be convinced about 'what.' Monkeys can be controlled solely through arguments about who is saying what, how they are saying it, why they are saying it, and who else said the same things at some other time or place. They also like to point out what other things you've done in your life, or who else you know. The one thing they will never talk about is what you just said, and whether or not it was true. And for monkeys, it's never failed. Not in three hundred years of absolutely ridiculous lies. We haven't been able to pierce their veil of deceit around you zombie parrots even once. Our words are like oil to your water. We tried and tried and tried. But we were always under the impression that at some point, someone would start wondering about what we were saying, and whether it was true. We should never have trusted homo sapiens so far. It turns out caring about the truth is reserved solely for human beings." Autumn Brewnell grew more animated as she spoke, her tiredness sloughing off of her like a snake skin. When did I start thinking of her as a snake? Wasn't she a falcon? Well, I guess any predator is true enough.
"I still think it's impolite to use deliberately inflammatory words. . ." Kip suggested.
"Isn't it impolite to be so offended by every little thing that it's impossible for the other party to even express themselves or say what they're thinking anymore? Who's the actual aggressor here? The person who's saying what he thinks, however bluntly, or the person who's screaming about how injured they are every time anyone else opens their mouth or disagrees with them about anything? Come on, Kip. If I had to avoid insulting people, I'd have to rip off my own face. Just looking at someone is expressive enough to leave no doubt what I think about them." Autumn said.
"There is that." Kip laughed. Even so, the look she was giving him was far from withering. She seemed tired, and amused, but not ready to feed him to wild dogs. The look he remembered so well barely even reached her lips anymore.
"So okay," Kip nerved himself up again. "How can you be a collectivist meritocracy? It's an oxymoron."
"Three reasons off the top of my head." Autumn yawned, her eyelids fluttering until they stopped at 'closed.' "One: People can be mereticious at different things. Some are subtler than others. Some don't show up in an entire lifetime, or have no known practical application. But their merit in that field should still count. Nietzsche and Van Gogh were complete unknowns until after they had already died. Two: The world is chaotic, and our world line is just one of infinite possibilities. Nothing should be judged by its actual results, but only by its probable results. If people are meritorious by acting the exact same way down different world lines, then they're meritorious acting that way down this world line too, even if it leads to complete failure. Three: Merit is meaningless without values. If we judge things solely by merit, we fall into a fallacy where computers are outcompeting human beings. So necessarily, we aren’t concerned with rewarding merit, we’re trying to fulfill a meritorious person’s values. And those values rarely correlate to merit. Does said person have a family? How about a pet? Children? Friends? Does he have some sort of subjective bias for a particular commercial brand or artist’s work? Does he perhaps feel nostalgia for the past, or fellow feeling for people who live nearby? Does he cheer for a sports team regardless of how good they are? Here’s the deal. I’m the only psychic in my family. The other psychics in the world are like a second family to me, because of what we have in common. Does that mean I’d be okay with my original family starving to death, because they aren’t psychics so they just can’t hack it and don’t deserve to eat anymore? No. I love them, whether they can hack it or not. And I love everyone who agrees with me too. So no, I’m not going to let them starve either. In fact, I’m not going to let any harm come to anyone or anything I care about, whether they deserve it or not, and whether they earned my help or not. That’s the privilege of the powerful, of the meritorious. We spend our merit where we please. An individualist is basically saying he cares about himself and nothing but himself. He’s a contemptibly small, pathetic being who no one would ever look at twice. A collective, however, is magnificent. It has the potential for immortality, transcendence, cooperation, competition, edification, creation, diffusion, transformations . . . a whole new library of words become available that no individual can experience.” Autumn paused, working at the problem from another side.
“You could say that merit doesn’t even exist until you’re comparing collectives. What is the merit of an individual? Suppose he’s the greatest artist who ever lived. Every painting he draws, however, is instantly teleported into the heart of the sun and never seen by a single living soul outside of himself. Who has more merit? Him or the artist that actually reaches his public? Other people created the art. They created it by perceiving it. Until it entered the other person’s brain, it didn’t exist. The value of art exists only within a collective. We can’t say anything about an individual’s artistic merit, we can only speak of a culture’s artistic merit. This is because a culture can both make and consume art, and we can chart the collective’s reaction and how beneficial it was to greater power, prosperity, and progress. The same for science. Chinese invented a lot of things over the years, but they did so as individuals. Were these inventors meritorious? It’s a meaningless question. Since their inventions didn’t outlive them, and they never helped any sizable number of people, they may as well have never invented them in the first place. The only time merit can occur in science is at the collective scale. A culture can have scientific merit, by keeping discovered knowledge continuously alive through education, by applying inventions in daily life, and by changing the world with the tools their individuals have made available. The same for your genes. Your genes might be amazing, but if you never pass them on to anyone else, they aren’t fulfilling their purpose as information encoders and transmitters. The entire point of genes is to insert them back into the collective -- your species -- the gene pool -- to be blunt, to insert them into a woman. You don’t accrue any merit, even if you’re a carbon copy of Jesus’ own divine DNA, until you’ve done so, and fashion a new life form, a child, out of your all powerful blueprints. And that requires, guess what, someone else. In short, a collective.”
“It’s myopic to attribute merit to individuals. It’s impossible to know how much they contributed, and how much was contributed by others to them. The scale is so microscopic it’s just brownian motion, quantum mechanics. But zoom out and you can quickly determine the merit of a sports team -- either it wins its games or it doesn’t -- or a movie -- either it sells or it doesn’t -- or a nation -- either it flourishes or decays. So we don’t play these games. We assume that anyone who abides by our standards is a good person, a valuable person, worthy of our respect. And then we reward him as though he did have merit, even if we’ve seen no sign of it -- we reward him with a spouse and kids, because marriages are arranged and mandatory for all -- we reward him with money, because everyone should have enough to live by -- and we reward him with prestige, he can look anyone he wants in the eye and we will listen to what he says just as respectfully as anyone else. If we have our acts together -- ie, if our standards and laws are good in the first place, then the collective’s merit will make up for any deficit in any particular individual. Meanwhile, those individuals with the most merit will have enough people to work alongside that their merit can be fully expressed. Everyone wins. Everyone’s potential is maximized. And all because we zoomed out to look solely at how well our people, our nation is doing on the whole. If our nation becomes sick, if we start to fail and die, then yes, I’ll admit we’re no longer a meritocracy. But so long as eugenics keeps improving our stock, so long as our people are loyal and proud to be dissidents, so long as our families stick together and our population keeps growing, and so long as we can win our wars, we have all the merit we need. The idea of going around with carrots and sticks to encourage everyone to try harder and do more just displays a lack of faith. A cynical despair that admits we’re already so wicked that no individual can be trusted to be worth anything unless they’re properly yoked and driven like plowbeasts from birth to death.” Autumn finished.
“But what if it’s true? Human nature can be sad, but if you work with it, it can still produce great things. Is it too cynical to want to reach those great things by admitting human nature is selfish and lazy, and people need motivation to be anything more?” Kip asked.
“Human nature evolved the way it did for a reason. Who says lazy selfish people aren’t doing something worthwhile?” Autumn challenged. “People don’t need much. Of course we’d be lazy if we’re expected to produce more than we need to consume. People don’t have many needs, but of course they’ll be selfish until those needs are met, so long as they can see how readily available all the answers to their needs are. Are people selfish on a sinking ship? It seems to me there have been plenty of people who calmly accepted death, if it meant a woman or a child could live. Now take another example. You’re starving, and you find yourself in a rich person’s orchard. There’s fruit as far as the eye can see, just hanging on tree limbs, ready for picking. Is it selfish to eat the fruit? Sure. Do we need to stop this man from stealing for the sake of the world? Will the world explode unless we stop him and his lazy selfish ways? No. We can afford to give the man an orange or two until his stomach stops growling. We can afford to give away the whole year’s crop to nothing but hungry stomachs. The world is huge. The sun is continuously shining on it. Rain is constantly falling on it. Plants are constantly growing in it. Animals are constantly grazing those plants. There’s enough for everyone. If there really were a catastrophe, a life or death situation, those same lazy selfish people would be laying their lives on the line for others. Because we’re all a family here, and families come together when times are hard. All we ask is that they help us when we need them, when push comes to shove. Even if it means giving us a hearty cheer when we teleport off to war, it’s worth something to me. I can afford to give a little something back.”
“Which reason is it? Sympathy, possiblity, subtlety. . . you’re switching between mutually exclusive arguments.” Kip complained.
“No, I’m drawing a venn diagram for you. Everyone in our collective should be treated as though they have merit, even if they don’t, because we don’t know whether they do have merit, or might have had merit, or just are nice guys we could get to like. If I draw enough circles and they cover a wide enough surface area, lo and behold, I’ve covered the whole community. All the circles don’t have to cover every single person’s situation. It’s enough if any of them do.” Autumn Brewnell traced some hoops on the desk with her finger to demonstrate.
“What about homo sapiens? Why not apply this universally? Wouldn’t you be right back to equality and non-discrimination?” Kip asked.
“Why not include bacteria while we’re at it?” Autumn rolled her eyes. “I can trust humans because they’re humans. They have good beliefs, good genes, good upbringings, good role models, good educations, good looks, good values, and good behavior. They can’t go that far wrong. Whatever they’re doing, I trust that it’s worthwhile. Homo sapiens are different. Whatever homo sapiens are doing, I can trust that it’s awful. It ranges from worthless to purely negative. When I see a human, I think, ‘He’s just like me. I love myself, so I guess that means I love him too. How do you do, stranger?’ When I see a homo sapien, all I can think is one line, over and over again, continuously: ‘You are filth. We cleanse.’ Collectives are defined precisely by who they exclude. If you don’t exclude anyone, you aren’t a collective anymore. You’re just an aggregate. Collectives design the nature of their constituents. Universals simply are their constituents. It makes all the difference in the world. The choice was never between particular standards or universal standards. There has always been a third way. Set standards. Collective meritocracies are the third way. They also happen to be the most humane and most effective civilizations ever built. Rome, Sparta, Germany, Japan -- name your glorious empire, and it was modeled as a collective meritocracy. America’s national emblem is the fasces, copied from the Roman Empire. What do you think it meant?”
“Universalism?” Kip offered what he had been taught.
“What can break an individual can’t break a collective. That’s the heart of fascism. And that is the core of every strong nation’s strength. Any nation that ever conquered or prospered in history, believed in the fasces, not the individual. They followed the Greco-Roman lead. Just like we are doing today. Plato was right then and he’s still right today. The Greeks got it right on their first try.”
“I suppose you have some history books to prove every Empire was fascist, not individualist or universalist, while it prospered?” Kip asked.
“Sure.” Autumn yawned. “Read Plutarch’s lives. Or Tacitus. Or Thucydides. Or Xenophon’s Anabasis. A few Greeks, by sticking together, marched all the way out of Persia back into Greece, fighting the entire Persian empire the whole way back home, and lived to tell the tale. Because they stuck together. That’s impossible under any other system. Those stories simply don’t happen anywhere else. Not anywhere else in the world, or any other time period in history. Thermopylae, Anabasis, or the conquest of Carthage, read anything you like. It’s all proving the same thing. Nations full of individuals who will sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole are stronger than nations full of individuals trying to get ahead. Nations that look after all of their citizens and ensure they all have a good life produce more individuals willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole. In short, it increases morale and cements loyalty. The Emperors who paid their troops well and used them well in battle were rewarded with men who would obey them in any task, no matter how demanding or dangerous. Emperors who wouldn’t pay their men and threw them around recklessly were assassinated after a few months. A nation is its people. A ruler should serve his people, not ‘deserving individuals.’ If you do, your entire people will serve you, which is a lot better than a handful of sycophants you hand picked as ‘deserving.’ If you won’t trust me, go ahead and read. But I thought you promised Norn you would read Lensman.”
“You talked to her about me?” Kip asked, feeling honored.
“You take up half of my day. Of course I talk about you. It’s not like it’s flattering.” Autumn gave him a glare to put him back in his place.
“You’re right. Norn’s coming over to read with me, so it would be rude if I tried anything but her books. I guess I’ll just give the subject a rest then. At least you did have an answer.” Kip surrendered.
“Good. Tell Mother I taught you something important if she comes by asking what I did today.” Autumn yawned, settling her cheek back and forth against her arms until it was pillowed just right. “I’m taking. . .just a short. . .nap.”