by K.P. Taylor
It was twilight in Holly Hills, and the streetlights had just come on, followed by a low, rhythmic humming. Disconcerting at first, the sound was gradually lost beneath the hush of the ceiling fan and the chatter of the nightly news broadcast. A man had been executed that morning–the first state-sanctioned execution for murder in the fourth degree. An unpleasant business, everyone agreed, but eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty. We owed our liberty to the CONN.
Over a decade earlier and a thousand miles away, the flagship CONN had been launched in economically depressed Fredericksburg, Virginia. On a grey and wretched Thursday, most of the workers at Smite-Felled, a nearby pork processing plant, had slipped out on their lunch break to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Many still wore their white rubber boots and plastic aprons flecked with blood. The police commissioner, unaccustomed to the reek of porcine blood and excrement, gave a stilted speech while holding a handkerchief to his mouth. The CONN, he assured those in attendance, would be barely noticeable–apart from a low-frequency hum “as pleasant as a kitten purring on your lap.” There was scattered applause as the switch was flipped and the drone of the CONN filled the air. “A kitten purring on my lap?” one woman groaned. “Feels like a damn mountain lion sitting on my head.” Other observers reported tingling sensations on their scalps and the unsettling feeling of being watched from the inside. Journalist–and outspoken critic of the CONN–John Gregory wrote that “it felt like I was leaving confession without receiving a penance.”
The CONN (Criminality Observing Neural Network) had been heralded as a triumph of neuroscience, computer engineering, and crime prevention. It could detect criminal intent directly from the mind of the perpetrator. Once activated, the CONN would envelop entire neighborhoods and monitor the brain activity of the residents. Their brain waves, recorded by enhanced remote electroencephalography, would be beamed to a supercomputer at the Justice Department. An artificial neural network would create a composite that would be scanned for nefarious desires or urges. Prospective criminals could be apprehended when the first impulses, the first evil thoughts, bubbled up in their conscious minds. They would be monitored by the CONN and released only when no evidence of mens rea remained.
Among those raising concerns about the new technology was John Gregory. “It is not unreasonable to worry that the CONN could evolve from a passive observer of our thoughts to an instrument of their direction. In that eventuality, our own minds could not be trusted; lies could be presented as truth, and the truth could be distorted or erased.” Congress had been reluctant to authorize the CONN–until Senator Tripp Roundhouse (R, Texas) suggested that beta testing be conducted in a low-income minority neighborhood. Fredericksburg had been a perfect fit.
Within six months of the installation of the CONN, violent crime had plummeted in Fredericksburg. An irrefutable success, the CONN was rapidly integrated into similar neighborhoods across the country. Soon there was a problem of too many would-be criminals and not enough holding facilities. A novel solution was proposed: conversion of vacant big-box stores into housing for “awaiting-clearance” detainees. These utilitarian buildings, relics of an age before the ascendence of e-commerce, would be ideal. Their tall ceilings could accommodate internal catwalks, and once the commercial shelving was removed, the aisles could be easily converted into cellblocks.
Five years after the CONN first rolled out, the backlog of awaiting-clearance offenders threatened to overwhelm the holding facilities. To expedite transfers to traditional prisons, Senator Roundhouse proposed additional legislation that would allow digital composites from the CONN to be made admissible in court. John Gregory, in an op-ed in the Sunday Sentinel, warned of the potential consequences of this further erosion of our civil liberties, concluding, “The remarkable thing about people is our ability to adapt. Like water, we shape ourselves according to our environment. It happens continuously, effortlessly, and without us even noticing. All it requires is time.” Roundhouse dismissed the article as a hyperbolic hit piece, and Congress passed the motion.
Trials for those with homicidal thoughts were fast-tracked. John Gregory opined, “It is bizarre to witness a man being sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife while she sits in the gallery of the courthouse…the single piece of evidence–a poster-sized print of the digital composite of her bludgeoned body.” However, even the CONN’s most vocal detractors had to admit that previously crime-riddled cities had been transformed into models of civic harmony.
The ten-year anniversary of the CONN saw its most audacious proposal yet–expansion into all residential areas in the US. There was widespread opposition from municipal governments. Using the CONN on street-hardened pre-felons was one thing, but the delicate constitutions of stockbrokers, housewives, and their children could be adversely affected by the constant hum. Hysterical town hall meetings erupted into shouting matches, each side imploring the other to “Think of the children!” Eventually a compromise was reached–the CONN was deployed, but it would only operate from dusk until dawn.
It was twilight in Holly Hills, and the streetlights had just come on. The chyron on the news broadcast reported that a man had been executed for fourth-degree murder. Within a week no one could even recall his name. It was the strangest thing–as if everyone had forgotten him all at once.
The CONN hums like a refrigerator, hisses like a radio searching for a signal. Still, it is easy to ignore. Other sounds were more difficult at first–the sirens of the early morning raids, the chopping of helicopters at night, and the desperate calls for help from neighbors thrown into police vans for crimes they had yet to commit. But the remarkable thing about people is our ability to adapt. Like water, we shape ourselves according to our environment. It happens continuously, effortlessly, and without us even noticing. All it requires is time.
Born and raised in South Africa, K.P. Taylor came to the US at 29 to work at an amusement park for the summer and never left. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Gargoyle, Roanoke Review, Dark Moon Digest, and others. He currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, their son, and two rescued cats. He can be found at kptaylorstories.com.