Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for January–March 2020: politics.
Mila sits at her desk, watching a dancer twirl around on her screen. Then she records an audio prediction.
“Retro, contrarian, but still ballet. How much can you watch?” she tells her audience. “I give her 2.68 more days of hype.”
That’s the entire story. By late afternoon Mila’s words have reached more than 3 million people, which she predicted as well. End-of-hype predictions track well and bring automatic bonuses if they turn out be true.
Mila is a journalist, and it’s a little over a year from a presidential election, but most of her pieces are predictions about teenagers or animals. She spends all day talking into her voice box, the audio device that is also so much more, filing predictions or commenting on other people’s work.
Mila’s office is immaculate. On her glass desk are two plants and a large bottle of rainwater. She looks out the window. It’s October in New York City, and the leaves on the sidewalk are bright and gold. There’s no reason to stay at work: She has no boss, and all of her income comes from reader tips. She puts on her wool coat and slips her voice box into a pocket. The price of VeriCoin is strong, so she can easily buy warm cinnamon milk on the way home. Milk is big at the moment, if slightly luxurious. Mila has given milk another two months, six days, and eight hours.
She sometimes wonders what it would be like to actually break news, like one of the reporters she’s seen in old movies. But those journalists don’t exist anymore. Politics are stable, elections are secure, scandals are at an all-time low.
The truth is all there is, on a blockchain for the world to see. VeriChain records the transactions of the world’s dominant digital currency, VeriCoin. There is no need for cash, no need for banks. But VeriChain is not just for money. It also keeps a permanent record of contracts, property deeds, medical records, photographs, social media posts — even the receipt for the milk Mila just bought. Data goes on-chain automatically, sent by phones and cars and smart homes. Mila likes to post her own updates from her voice box.
The best part is that this information is public, easily searchable, and unquestionably accurate. On VeriChain every block of data is linked to the one before it, so if you try to rewrite history, you mess up the entire chain. New blocks of data are confirmed by people all over the world, who check one another’s work in real time. There’s no lying about your age because childhood photos are time-stamped and impossible to remove. There’s no danger of buying a counterfeit product or doing business with someone with bad credit. It is the age of immutability.
Everything is done on VeriChain: paying bills, renting apartments, booking doctor’s appointments. Some personal data is pseudonymous, and there are opt-outs and privacy controls buried somewhere, but it’s way too inconvenient to use them. There was this one guy from college who made a big deal of trying to keep his transcripts off-chain, though Mila can’t even remember what point he was trying to make. In the end, his act of rebellion just made it inconvenient for recruiters to find him and led everyone to suspect that his grades were lower than they really were.
Prediction markets run smoother than ever. Collective wisdom declares a prediction true or false, and then funds are automatically transferred to winners’ wallets. So if journalism isn’t terribly exciting, Mila tells herself, that’s a small price to pay.
Besides, Mila doesn’t really care about her job right now. Because at 32, after years of grim coffee dates with algorithmically made matches, she’s finally met someone.
Artificial intelligence would never have set her up with Matt. At 38 he makes the age cut, if barely. But he is divorced, while Mila has never been in a real relationship, which makes no sense algorithmically. Nothing adds up—his dislike of horror movies and loud concerts, his love of meat, all the stupid things she had once signaled as important but are now impossible to erase.
Mila can sometimes predict her own future, weighing little signs in the atmosphere to guess how the day will go. But on the truly momentous day when she met Matt, nothing stood out. Most Saturdays she would leave her voice box at home and go to the little cafe around the corner, where she would spend several hours trying to read a book. This behavior would be pretentious in anyone else, but the record shows that Mila has always liked books.
That Saturday Mila noticed an attractive man with dark hair, also sitting by himself. When he looked directly at her she smiled in a self-deprecating way, then theatrically turned back to her book, hoping he’d admire her attempt to focus.
He walked over to her, just like that.
“What are you reading?” he asked, also just like that. Hardly anyone talks to strangers because it’s so inefficient. The man had a trace of an accent. Mila couldn’t identify it, but she could search his profile later. She noticed that his eyes were pale green, like sea glass. Sea glass! This absurdly romantic thought made Mila smile to herself.
“History,” Mila said. “All the President’s Men.”
“Yes! Are you a journalist, too?”
“No. I take it you are?”
“I am! But this isn’t for work or anything. I just think it’s fascinating to read about, you know, the way it was before.”
She cringed at how stiff she sounded. Despite her pithy, clever audio stories, she had no idea how to talk to a man in real life. But he was looking at her kindly.
“It is fascinating,” he said.
Mila was encouraged by his repetition of her lame word choice, which she interpreted as an act of solidarity.
“Journalism’s a little boring now, by comparison,” she said. She quickly added, “not like I’m complaining.”
But she was, just a little. Journalists once had a chance to be heroes. But then people stopped trusting the press. Everyone blamed “fake news,” even though it wasn’t that simple. Americans could no longer agree on the most basic facts. After the Great Division of the 2020s, VeriChain came along to bring everyone back onto the same page.
When Mila first started out in journalism, she thought it would be fun to do an audio series on the biggest media scoops in history, but those stories got no traction at all. Some of her listeners even accused her of romanticizing the past, and they were probably right. Yet she still likes to imagine what it must have felt like, that adrenaline. Mila will never be in a history book for predicting when celebrities stopped drinking milk.
But what else is she going to talk about? There is nothing new to say about the president, with his perfect blend of social liberalism and business acumen. His main job is not to interfere with the economy. Some people don’t like him, but no one has anything on him. All of his skeletons are on the blockchain, posted by him or his staff. His three-time use of cocaine in college, the fact that he dyes his hair silver to play down his youth, the occasional messages to another woman when he and his now wife were dating. It’s all on VeriChain, along with government budgets, diplomatic cables, and transcripts of internal meetings. Transparency is Trust, the president likes to say. Now he’s up for another term, and there’s no real opposition.
A few weeks after they first meet, Matt is waiting for Mila outside her office building. He is literally standing under a streetlight. Mila can’t get over it, this tall man on the sidewalk waiting for her, wearing a suit. The less time people spend at work, the more they dress up.
“What are you up for?” Matt asks. There is always an abundance of time. They decide to pick up ingredients for dinner. Matt can cook, too. They go back to Mila’s place and he makes pasta by hand, rolling dough and stuffing it with beef and cheese, adding a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Matt doesn’t like vegetables, but he makes a salad just for Mila. She spins around on a kitchen stool, holding a glass of natural orange wine and chatting about everything she heard that day.
Matt is both slightly amused by Mila’s chatter and endlessly interested in what she has to say. He is a composer, and his music is meditative, like tiptoeing through a plush white room. Mila is a trumpet, bright and loud. Maybe that’s what he likes about her. Matt doesn’t talk much about his past, because there’s no need. The blockchain verifies everything that Mila wants to know. Baby photos, the college years, his wedding video. He is originally from Dublin, but his Irish accent has been softened by many years abroad.
Mila, of course, mostly cares about the ex-wife. She’s slim and pretty, but not alarmingly so. The marriage certificate and divorce papers are all on-chain. There was some unpleasantness in the proceedings, the papers revealed, when Matt said that his aversion to having children should have come as no surprise. He had been sharing his views on overpopulation and resource depletion since high school. Mila is a little startled by the virulence of Matt’s writing, as it is such a contrast to his measured personality.
“Of course I knew,” the ex-wife said, “but sometimes people change … .” But they don’t really, not anymore. Every wisp of an idea is preserved forever, linked to the ideas before it, making people who they are. In any event, the ex went on to have two kids with some other guy, so it all worked out for the best.
Not long after Matt enters her life, Mila wakes up feeling something in the air, a signal that it will not be an ordinary day. The morning sunlight is a little too orange, like it is already afternoon. On her way to work the streets are mostly empty, as usual, but Mila has a vague feeling that someone is there. Not following her, exactly, just there.
Sure enough, after lunch a message comes in from an unknown sender whose address is just a string of numbers and letters. The message is a photograph.
Mila gets random messages all the time, usually from listeners who want to go in with her on predictions. But this message is unusual: It is a photo of Mila’s mother. She is wearing a thick oatmeal-colored wool sweater, standing under a tree. Her hair is long and shiny, and she is smoking a cigarette. According to the time and location stamps, in the photo her mother is 26 and in Seattle, a city that Mila can’t remember her mother ever mentioning. Her head is slightly tilted downward, but her eyes are looking up at the camera, with just the hint of a smile on her face. Mila has never seen her brisk, practical mother wear anything close to this expression. In the photo she is almost coquettish. She looks, Mila realizes with a start, like someone in love.
There’s nothing scandalous about the photo, as Mila’s parents met two years after it was taken. But when Mila checks VeriChain, there is no evidence of this photo, or even of any visit to Seattle. The photo could be a fake, except that faking photos is so pointless. They’re just too easy to fact-check. Besides, why would anyone fake a photo of Mila’s mother?
Mila sends the picture to her mom, mostly curious as to how she’ll respond. Mila assumes she’ll laugh it off, or ask why Mila is wasting her time with this nonsense. Her mother’s face, a little flustered, appears on Mila’s screen mere seconds after she sends the picture.
“Where did you get this?”
“Someone sent it to me.”
“No idea. But why would someone fake a photo of you? It’s creepy.”
Her mother pauses, then says quietly, “I haven’t seen this photo in years.”
“What? How is that possible? It’s not on VeriChain.”
“It was a long time ago, Mila. Things slip through.”
“No, they don’t! I don’t understand. How is this photo off-chain?”
“I didn’t put it on there, I guess.”
Mila shakes her head. “But who took it?”
“Someone from a long time ago. It doesn’t really matter now.”
Her mother’s cheeks are pink. Mila looks at her mother’s face and is startled to see a glimpse of that woman under the tree.
Mila is still thinking about the photo on the walk back to her apartment. She thought she knew everything about her parents and everyone else in her life.
When she gets home, Matt is sitting at her desk composing music the old-school way, writing delicate black-ink notes on a heavy white page. They both love paper. He says that’s why he first approached her in the cafe, because she was holding a book. He is so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t even look up when Mila comes in. She watches him for a moment, amazed that he can compose music in total silence. Mila doesn’t do anything in silence.
She thinks about mentioning the photo of her mother, but she doesn’t want to disturb the serenity of the moment. But mostly, she doesn’t know how to process the interaction, how to make it fit into her worldview. In the blockchain era, things don’t just “slip through.” At the same time, her mother isn’t a liar. Mila decides to put the photo out of her mind, at least for now.
Matt looks up and sees her standing there. He gives her a broad grin.
“I roasted a chicken,” he says.
A week later, something even stranger happens. Another photo comes from an unknown sender. It’s the movie star Taylor Singh, walking hand in hand with Lana Snow from TV. He’s wearing a derby hat and a long coat, but it is undeniably him. Location: London. Time stamp: that morning. Singh is Mila’s favorite actor, which makes the message feel personal.
It would seem an unlikely match, and as far as VeriChain is concerned both celebrities are in relationships with other people. Mila doesn’t believe the photo is real, not even for a second, but for some reason this couple makes sense to her.
So, just for fun, she goes ahead and publishes a prediction. She declares that within a week’s time, the world will learn of this secret romance. She doesn’t mention the photo or explain her reasoning. The odds are low and the reward is high, and the story is an instant hit. Her voice box is flooded with comments, mostly people saying that there’s no way. But her fans love it. There’s a hunger for outlandish predictions, even if they have no chance of coming true.
But then, just two days after Mila makes her prediction, Lana Snow herself updates VeriChain with a photo of a sparkly diamond ring. The relationship had apparently been going on for a while, but the commotion surrounding Mila’s prediction forced the couple to come clean. Mila’s windfall is immediate. The beauty of prediction markets is that transactions are executed automatically, with no third party involved. So as soon as the diamond ring appears on VeriChain, a tide of VeriCoins from people who took the other side of the bet arrive in Mila’s mobile wallet.
Mila’s following soars, and she notices a particular spike in the number of fans in China. China is the only country in the world that has its own blockchain, and the Chinese government acts like VeriChain doesn’t even exist. No one thought that China could avoid the VeriEconomy, and yet it has, and now there are more than a billion people living in an alternate reality. The development of ChinaChain, among other things, led to Washington’s freezing of relations with Beijing, citing irreconcilable differences. At least, that’s VeriChain’s portrayal of the split. ChinaChain probably has a completely different version, but Mila has no idea what it is.
It’s not easy to get onto VeriChain from China, but plenty of Chinese people still find ways to do it, especially to play the prediction markets. Mila’s stories are simultaneously translated into dozens of languages, and she has long had a large Chinese following. Just not this large.
That night, she takes Matt out to dinner to celebrate. They have steaks with butter, an exorbitant expense, and a dark red wine. Matt describes himself as anti-vegetarian. He believes that animals deplete the world’s resources and have no right to exist. So he tries to eat as many of them as possible.
Matt usually pays little attention to the prediction markets, but the Singh-Snow story is everywhere, so even he can’t avoid it.
“How did you even come up with that one?” he asks. His tone is breezy, his gaze intense.
“Well, there was this photo … ”
It is the first time she has mentioned the photo to anyone. She has written it out of her own narrative. In her mind, the important part of the story is that she trusted her intuition, and then the virality of her prediction compelled two celebrities to announce their union. A self-fulfilling prophecy, of sorts.
“Someone sent me a photo of them together, a couple days ago.”
“A photo that wasn’t on VeriChain?”
“Yeah, so it must have been a fake.”
He is studying her with his sea-glass eyes.
“That’s a pretty big coincidence, wouldn’t you think?” he finally says.
Mila senses that he is choosing his words carefully. She hears something unfamiliar in his voice, it sounds almost like a note of condescension. No, she quickly decides, it’s just her imagination. Her mind is exhausted from so much activity.
“What difference does it make?” she asks, keeping her voice light. “It’s paying for dinner, isn’t it?”
“You’re absolutely right,” he says, his voice and expression returning to normal. He raises his glass.
A few days later her messenger, once again writing from an address that’s just a string of numbers and letters, ups the ante with a short video. It shows a handshake between the president of the United States and the president of China. This could obviously never happen. The U.S. president is particularly vocal on this issue: “Who Needs China?” His reelection campaign centers on it. China doesn’t seem too fond of the United States, either, but it’s difficult to know what an off-chain nation thinks about anything.
In the video, the two presidents are at some kind of banquet. On the table are the remnants of what appears to have been a duck. There are other figures at the table, slightly blurred, mostly Chinese.
The video looks so realistic, and Mila admires its artistry. The Chinese president is wearing a deep fuchsia, with her fingernails painted to match. The American president is even using chopsticks! These kinds of deep-fake videos are rare, because they really are a waste of time. In the early days of VeriChain, there were all still a bunch of alternative histories and conspiracy theories, but they have all faded away.
Mila lets herself wonder, just for a second, what it would be like if the video was authentic. Imagine telling her fans something world-changing, something surprising, something that changed their perception. But no one would believe this video. There is zero evidence of the two presidents ever being in the same country, let alone the same room.
The photo is of course not on VeriChain, so Mila has to do some actual investigating. Behind the two presidents is a red wall with gold Chinese characters. The scene could have been in Washington, theoretically, though Chinese restaurants aren’t terribly popular in America these days. Eventually, she is able to ID the red wall in the background, which is from a restaurant at a five-star hotel in Beijing.
The photo is time-stamped from less than an hour ago, which would imply that the president of the United States is in China right now. Mila can’t believe that she is even contemplating this. But then again, the Singh-Snow romance turned out to be true.
She doesn’t have much time to decide. The prediction markets run on speed. She calls Matt and quickly describes the absurd situation. He doesn’t even pause.
“I think you should go for it,” he says.
“But there’s no way it’s real … ”
“You don’t know that. And if it is real, you will have slept on the scoop of the century. This could change everything.”
“It could also totally blow up in my face. And then what?”
“I don’t know. But no matter what, I’ll be right there beside you.”
Mila almost stops breathing. No man has ever said anything like that to her. So she decides to go for it, just to see what will happen. She figures she can always later claim it was a joke, or some kind of performance art. Her following has tripled since the Singh prediction, largely thanks to China. She knows that at the very least, the story won’t flop.
“Spotted in China: the president of the United States, within 48 hours.” Boom! The story takes off like a rocket, reaching millions within minutes. It’s fueled by the outrageousness of the prediction and the sheer force of the Chinese market.
When Mila gets home, Matt is waiting. He pulls her close, elated. He has made lamb stew, and the kitchen smells like cumin.
“I’m so proud of you,” he says. “You took a big risk.”
“I don’t know,” Mila says. “I don’t know where any of this is going.”
“I have a feeling,” he says, “call it a prediction, that this time you’re right.”
At 9 o’clock the next morning, another message comes in. It is a photo of Matt, apparently taken two years before they met, walking a fluffy white dog. Mila almost laughs out loud. There is no universe in which Matt would be walking any dog, let alone such an enormous one. Matt has written that domestic pets are the pinnacle of human selfishness and resource depletion. In the photo, he is wearing mirrored sunglasses, which is also weird, and his winter coat is open to reveal an aqua blue V-neck sweater that Mila has never seen before. He looks happy, relaxed. So does the dog, but those big white dogs always look like they’re smiling.
What a strange joke, Mila thinks. Just for fun, she checks VeriChain and is immediately able to verify the ID of the dog, which does in fact exist. It is a Samoyed named Dusty, born in Alaska, then brought to New York by a breeder. It is now owned by an older woman who lives on the Upper East Side. The dog has no discernible link to Matt. The blockchain obviously has no evidence of this particular photo, and a quick search of Matt and dogs only surfaces Matt’s angry posts on the topic.
Mila can’t focus on this latest piece of insanity, however, because her voice box is on fire. There is a deluge of comments from listeners, and a few from her friends, asking “What is up with you?” Her parents are concerned. In the United States, where the president enjoys overwhelming support, pretty much everyone is betting against her. The mood is still light, however, because none of the president’s supporters take her prediction seriously.
But in China, millions are on Mila’s side. Foreign correspondents are updating VeriChain with reports of a nationwide search for the U.S. president. A presidential visit to Beijing would be an admission of Chinese legitimacy, but more important, a lot of Chinese people have real money riding on it. ChinaChain is flooded with tips, with groups of people popping up at any location where the president is rumored to be. According to VeriChain, meanwhile, the president is in Washington, with his schedule updated hourly. That day he had a meeting with his top advisers, a personal lunch, and then a photo op with his wife in the Rose Garden.
Mila can hardly sleep that night. Nor can Matt. Neither can turn away from Mila’s voice box. Mila has never seen Matt this energized. He too has been waiting for this, the big scoop. It is exhilarating to share this experience with him, this man who would never have been her match. Mila still thinks that there is zero chance that the president is actually in China, but she is stunned by her ability to cause this kind of global commotion.
The next morning, the VeriChain images start coming in from Shanghai, where it is already evening. There is the U.S. president, in profile, in the doorway of a restaurant. Two minutes later he is on the curb, beneath glittering city lights, under a street sign written in Chinese characters. He gets into a black car, and highway surveillance cameras send updates from the road. Finally, the president of the United States skulks through the doors of Pudong International Airport, where tens of thousands of Chinese people are waiting for him.
The week that follows is chaotic. Consensus is breaking down. The White House is sticking to its side of the story, claiming that the president was in Washington the entire time. For the first time ever, VeriChain is on the verge of a hard fork: two realities existing at once. If VeriChain forked and everyone believed the new chain, the information on VeriChain would become irrelevant, even suspect. Mila has always believed that there is one version of the truth. In a forked world, the world as she knew it would become meaningless. She finds this terrifying, impossible to comprehend.
Meanwhile, the prediction markets are spinning out of control. Anything is possible. The president resigning. California seceding. A visit from an angel. The bets pile on as people make crazy predictions and hope that sheer virality will make them come true. The price of VeriCoin is more volatile than any time in its history, as people start panic selling and turning to gold. There are rumors that the U.S. government is buying up VeriCoin in an attempt to stabilize the economy, a direct contradiction to the president’s “Decentralization for All!” mantra. Cinnamon milk is ludicrously expensive.
Now it’s Matt who is talking all the time while Mila sits on the couch, monitoring her voice box and vacillating between exuberance and shell-shock. She is afraid to go outside because everyone knows who she is. Matt hasn’t worked on his compositions in days.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” Matt says as he paces around the room. “Think about all the stories you can break now!”
“I guess,” Mila says. “I just don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“And that’s the way it should be! Not everything is on VeriChain. It was never that simple.”
Mila’s high-stakes predictions have left her flush with digital coins. The air vibrates with opportunity. She can do anything she wants. But first, she needs to clear her head. She asks Matt if they can get away for a bit. They decide to go to Canada for the weekend, to rent a little house in the coldest and most remote town they can find. Canada is on VeriChain too, so it’s no more peaceful there, but Mila hopes they can at least find some isolation.
The night before the trip they are at Matt’s place for a change, and in his current state of agitation he hasn’t packed a thing. Mila decides to take the matter into her own hands.
“OK, let’s do this. Where are all your sweaters?”
Matt is bent over his desk, trying to compose, but Mila can tell he’s not focusing. He gestures vaguely at the top shelf of his closet, where a bunch of sweaters are piled on top of one another.
Mila pulls some sweaters off the shelf. A bright white, a deep crimson. Matt has beautiful clothes. Then she sees it. Balled up in the back, a turquoise knit that clearly hasn’t been worn for a long time. It looks familiar, but at first she can’t place it. She stands on her tiptoes and pulls the sweater down.
“Haven’t seen this one before,” she begins, but Matt isn’t paying attention. That’s when she notices them: two long, white hairs.
“Um,” Mila says. He still doesn’t look up. He is trying to get some work done before their trip. But now she remembers it, the image that had been completely overshadowed by the recent turmoil. The big, white dog.
She stands there, holding the blue sweater, at a rare loss for words.
“There is fur on your sweater,” she finally says. “Why would there be fur on your sweater?”
Matt looks up at her. Mila read somewhere that people get nervous when they are caught in a lie. But Matt has his usual expression: calm, slightly amused. He puts his composition down and walks over, wraps his arms around her. A few weeks earlier, that would have been enough. But now, she takes a step back.
“Did you have a dog?”
“I’m not going to dignify that with an answer.”
She reaches for her voice box, pulls up the image and shows it to him.
“Where did you get that,” he says. “It’s not on-chain.”
Mila stares at him. What happened to the Irish accent?
“It makes no sense,” she says, sitting down on the bed. She is still holding the blue sweater.
“You’re right, it makes no sense.” He is talking faster now. “The president is a fraud, and everyone had become so … docile. Someone had to wake people up.”
He kneels down in front of the bed. He gently removes the sweater from her grasp and takes her hands in his. “We can do amazing things together, Mila.”
“It just makes no sense,” she repeats. “You had a dog?”
“OK, fine,” he says, exasperated. “Yes, I had a dog. For like a year.”
“But it just proves my point! Not everything is on-chain. You know, like that picture of your mom.”
Mila pulls her hands out of his grasp.
“How did you know about the picture of my mom?”
Mila lies on the couch, her hand over her eyes, while he paces the room and talks and talks. The accent is now totally gone. I have no idea who sent you that dog photo, he says. A lot of people want to take me down. We’ve been working on this fork for years. Yes, I believe that animals are destroying the planet. It makes no sense, fine. No one is consistent. That’s the point! The blockchain is only as good as the data we put on it. That’s what I was trying to show you. I’m sorry I had to do it this way. But I thought you always wanted to break news.
Mila finally puts up her hand, asks him to stop. She needs time. The next morning she goes to the little house in Canada, where she wraps herself in blankets and stares into a fire. So she misses the alert that she has reaped yet another windfall. Two months, six days, and eight hours have gone by. Milk is officially over.
Most Recent in Future Tense Fiction
“The Song Between Worlds,” by Indrapramit Das
“No Moon and Flat Calm,” by Elizabeth Bear
“Space Leek,” by Chen Qiufan
“Zero in Babel,” by E. Lily Yu
“What the Dead Man Said,” by Chinelo Onwualu
“Double Spiral,” by Marcy Kelly
“Affordances,” by Cory Doctorow
“A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Robot Walk Into a Bar,” by Andrew Dana Hudson
“Actually Naneen,” by Malka Older
And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow, out now from Unnamed Press.