Project D2: A dystopian short story
In the end, they had to steal Project D2 and let me tell you why. It was the single most effective operation ever run in American history and they wouldn’t be here without it. It would have all but destroyed their power.
Robert Knightly was the creator and the lead researcher on Project D2. He stares down at us every morning from his place of honor on the sweeping expanse of our entranceway, the only painting adorning the otherwise cheerless office vestibule. Robert Knightly was a big man in his early 50s, with dark skin, a bald head, a mostly-black beard and mustache, and a contagious, open-mouthed smile. His kindness and decency cannot be concealed, even here. He’s painted in the traditional, if boring, tan suit, white collared shirt, and tan tie, popular in the 2010s. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 30 years since then. He worked so hard to get his project approved and we all wanted to change the world. “Democracy will spread!” we said. “We will propagate human rights!” we said.
I’m daydreaming again, using my obsession with Project D2 as an excuse for procrastination. Right now, my mission is clear. I’ve been tasked with terming Mike in the Australian Division and I’m absolutely heartbroken about it. I’ve worked here long enough and you’d think I’d be used to the way things work, but this is only the second time I’ve had to do it and, let’s face it, there’s no getting used to it. Mike is a good guy and his efforts with his team around prison privatization have been admirable. He’s made good strides in the world’s last struggling democracy, but time is up. The Boss says he has to go and it’s my job to do it.
My name is Elle and I guess you could say I’m in Operations. I don’t actually have a title, I just work for the Boss and do his bidding. Some people call me the “fixer”, but honestly, there are many so-called “fixers” in the organization and it would be arrogant of me to embrace such a term. A lawyer by education, I’m not part of a team, I don’t have to manage anyone else, and my job fits well with my introspective nature and my desire to get things done without worrying about issues like morale, buy-in, or collaboration. It’s a decent job and most days I enjoy the challenges. And I’m incredibly good at it. But right now, I can’t seem to focus on anything but Robert Knightly and our work together. I miss him.
Today when I arrived at work, I was determined to get the process rolling with Mike. I don’t have any other pressing work and the Boss is out of town for a couple of weeks. It is the perfect time to take care of it. But I find myself wandering around the office, looking for other people who need an excuse to procrastinate on their own deadlines. And nothing works better than bringing up Project D2.
Thankfully, I bump into Raj almost immediately. Raj heads up their South Asia division and is considered a bit of a rock star. India’s swift transformation in the 2010s and early 2020s was Raj’s vision and the implementation was a complete success. Raj is only a few years older than me, but he has been a mentor to me, ever since he recruited me two decades ago.
“Elle! Haven’t seen you in ages!” Raj’s booming English accent had always charmed me, as had his professorial looks and gap-toothed grin. “You’re looking svelte as ever.”
“Raj,” I laugh. “It’s been too long. How’s your fund coming along?” Raj’s biggest project these days is managing a global hedge fund that offers investments options to outsiders, but primarily helps keep their money clean against the few regulators left.
“It’s great, it’s great. We had a pretty bad spring, but things are finally turning around and Q3 was our best yet. I can’t thank you enough for your help with the Hawala investigation. You really saved us. How about you? What are you working on?”
Raj’s reminder that I am indeed part of the team makes me uncomfortable, but I explain my mission — both my assigned one and my procrastination pursuit.
“Oh Elle, I’m sorry, I know it’s hard. Is this your first since…?”
“Yes,” I interrupt, not wanting to hear his name.
“It reminds me of when we met. You were so earnest, plugging away on Project D2 with Robert Knightly,” Raj said. “You know, I was tasked with convincing him to work with us. I looked everywhere for some kind of leverage and there just wasn’t anything on him.”
I nod and smile. Of course, there wouldn’t be.
“So we turned to you,” Raj finished.
Yes, they turned to me, who, they found, did give them something to leverage. A father with a prominent job in the public eye and reckless habits. Still, I was determined not to submit.
“Do you remember the hearings?” Raj asked wistfully.
Now we’re talking, I thought. I knew it all by heart of course, but I never tired of the story.
“Remind me,” I said.
“Well, Knightly’s nephew, Jack, always had ambitions to run for office since he was a kid. The entire family was basically a walking advertisement for the American Dream, with public health experts, military brass and civil servants sought after all over the world. Yet somehow, the family seemed to stay humble and honest and not seek the spotlight. A shame, really. We were 8 years into the operation when Knightly’s nephew, Jack, ran for office in Michigan and won. Given his connections, he wrangled his way onto the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees DARPA.”
Raj paused for a moment to fiddle with the messages coming in at his wrist and then slip his headset on.
“I’m sorry, Elle, I have to take care of this,” Raj said. “I’ll try to catch up with you in a little bit.” Raj walked briskly toward his office, headset still on, his arms mimicking a conductor’s as he swiped at files or messages to address whatever problem had interrupted us.
I sighed and headed back to my own workspace.
Jack Knightly heroic rise and near victory was my favorite part of the D2 story. Jack and I were the same age and I always felt connected to him. I sat down and pulled my own headset down and located archive video of the hearings. I’d recently upgraded to 4th gen and the improvement was remarkable. Immediately my augmented reality became virtual reality and I was in the House chamber 16 years ago.
“I want answers,” Knightly’s voice rang out, as he shook a pile of papers at the witness. “Was this program operational?”
The witness, a lower level DOD official who was not one of theirs, stayed calm and leaned into the microphone.
“Representative Knightly, I want to express my condolences about your uncle. I lost a brother to suicide. Your uncle was a great man and I-”
“He was a great man!” Knightly interrupted. “I don’t need you to tell me that, nor do I need to remind you that his so-called ‘suicide’ involved him falling out of a 9-story window. What I need you to tell me is whether or not Project D2 was ever operational and if so, who ran it.”
The witness shook his head and said, “No, sir, the program was never operational under the DOD. It was abandoned.”
“Then why doesn’t it appear in the archives alongside all the other abandoned projects? Why were its files completed erased?”
“I don’t know, sir,” the witness said, looking genuinely remorseful that he didn’t have the answers.
I’ve always believed that Robert Knightly knew his life was in danger. He knew the forces that his project had attracted and he told his nephew about it. I think Jack Knightly ran for congress having already secured his spot on the right committee purposely to expose the plan. Or maybe I just wanted to believe that they almost succeeded.
On the House floor, Jack lowered his head with a sigh of frustration. Unlike his uncle, Jack was tall and thin with short-cropped dark hair and a goatee that was sprinkled with gray. But they shared the same smile. In photos of Jack before his uncle’s death, his smile was often playful. A bit cocky, but inclusive, like you were in on the joke. By the time of this hearing, his smiles were rare.
“Who do you recommend I subpoena next to answer these questions?” Jack Knightly asked. “This committee has received the testimony of multiple program managers and staff and no one has any answers.”
“Have you tried the General Counsel’s office, sir?”
I gasped at hearing myself implied here, as I did every time I watched. Jack’s eyes narrowed and he looked down at the papers in front of him. He was one of the good ones, I was sure of it. I can feel myself cheering for him, even in this moment of my own grave danger. I wish I had had the chance to work with him on something meaningful, before he met the same fate as his uncle, this time by my own hands.
Before I can hear Jack’s answer, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look to my left and see the Boss, watching Jack on the dais. With a shiver, I realize the touch is not from the past, but today. I lift my headset and blink rapidly to adjust to my physical location. Raj is standing next to my chair, an open grin on his face.
“Want to go get a coffee and continue our chat?” he asks.
“Yes,” I agree, “but only if it’s not office coffee. I could use a walk.” Walks through the fossil fuel-free zone always cleared my head.
Raj laughs and we grab our coats and set off for a walk to a nearby coffee shop. The dirty snow crunches lamentably under our feet on the sidewalk. It’s gloomy and overcast, and the kind of lurking cold that makes you think you don’t need a hat and gloves until it’s too late.
“I was just watching the House hearings,” I begin. “The official story is still that D2 was never used.”
“But that’s not true, is it?” Raj asked. “I seem to remember there was testing done.”
“Correct,” I said. “The beta version was rolled out during the Arab Spring in 2011 and primarily tested in Bahrain. It was quite a success in causing real activism and protest on behalf of human rights. And that was really just the bot side up and running, with very few human influencers on that initial test.”
“Unlike later,” Raj said.
“Unlike later,” I agreed. As the years went by and D2 flourished under the Boss’s operation, the bot-to-human ratio had gone from 90/10 to 50/50. Further proof of D2’s success at indoctrination.
“The thing about D2 that’s always surprised me,” Raj said, “is that it actually led to an entirely different outcome than expected. We just wanted it so it couldn’t be used against us. But then the Boss set out to use it for propaganda purposes to make sure our friends continued to win elections to protect our holdings. Completely understandable, right? But the real genius happened when it was implemented on all sides of the spectrum. We had the left pointing and screaming about fascism and the right pointing and screaming about socialism and we just walked right in through the middle with ease. Quite brilliant actually.”
We arrived at the coffee shop and joined the queue.
“Mike’s not in until later today, you know,” Raj said, jolting me back to present day.
“I didn’t realize that. What’s he doing?”
“His wife has cancer treatments this morning so he’s got to shuttle the kids somewhere.”
Well, that’s a sucker punch, I thought. Could my job get any more difficult today?
Raj and I placed our orders and shuffled to the pickup area.
“Do you know what happened to Robert Knightly?” I asked.
Raj looked at me, his eyebrows lifted in surprise.
“Do you really not know?” Raj asked, his sympathetic tone more than I could bear.
I sighed, and watched the people walking by the shop outside. There were fewer and fewer people who could afford to make a daily coffee stop these days and I felt it was important to support these businesses when I could. Of course I knew. I just never wanted the details. I never wanted to acknowledge what my actions had wrought. Not the specifics, anyway. I wanted to be another victim, not another perpetrator.
“Elle, bringing you onboard is one of my proudest achievements. When we first met at DARPA, I knew we shared the same vision. Your passion for smaller government and the free market matched my own. We both recognized even back then that power needs to be entrusted to carefully elected guardians to get any meaningful work done. Yes, of course money matters too, and that may be the motivation of the Boss, but we are realists. Our system may be less fair, but it makes good decisions more often. It was your idea to use D2 to purposefully weed out the ignorant and the irrational from voting at all.”
This was true of course, and the ultimate reason for my betrayal of Robert Knightly. He just refused to give up on universal suffrage. Despite all the evidence of bad policy and lazy electorates across the globe, he dug in and wouldn’t see the light. Self-government was always doomed to fail, I insisted, because as humans, our flaws outweigh our gifts. As groups of humans, our ignorant outnumber our wise. But Robert thought we could use D2 to improve both education and participation. He was willing to die for it.
Raj and I received our coffee and began the chilly walk back to the office. Raj chatted amiably about a hiccup he was having with a large investor in his fund, but I tuned him out, remembering how terrified I had been when Robert Knightly died, and how worried I was when the death investigation was botched from all angles, until it was finally ruled a suicide. In the end, it didn’t take much for me to acquiesce. Safety and money. That’s all it usually takes. As a human, my flaws outweigh my gifts. I had chosen a side and I couldn’t hide from this truth any longer.
We arrived back at the office and found Mike in the vestibule, under Robert’s familiar smile.
“Mike, I need to speak to you sometime today,” I said.
Mike looked at me, distracted. “I was just looking for you, actually. The Boss sent me a message and told me to find you.”
I snuck a look at Raj and he quickly excused himself.
“There’s a net zero building nearby he wants me to show you,” I said. “He thinks it might be a good choice for expansion. He thinks you’ll love the view from the rooftop park.”