Veil of Ignorance

by David Barr Kirtley

This story originally appeared in All the Rage This Year: The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology 3, edited by Keith Olexa. It also appeared in audio format as part of the debut issue of MechMuse magazine. The illustration is by Jesus Garcia Lopez. Learn more about the story here.
 


 
    Something strange is happening to me.
    We're at Conrad's vacation house, a sprawling mansion that orbits the gas giant Hades-3. (His father owns both the house and the planet.) Conrad is in the living room watching sports. His girlfriend Alyssa is standing by the mirror in the bathroom, fixing her hair. Her friend Kat is sitting near the bay windows, watching the stars and the roiling vermeil clouds on the world below. Dillon is in the kitchen, mixing drinks. Brad is slouched on the sofa, watching everyone with a lazy smile.
    And I don't know which of them I am.
    Perception shifts. A few moments of Alyssa, running my fingers through silky hair. A moment of Dillon, using my knife to slice limes for the drinks. A moment of Kat, feeling awe of those looming bands of color, of those constantly churning swirls that look so majestic, and make me feel so insignificant. Then Conrad -- pride at my team's success, at my father's wealth.
    Then Brad. I feel quite smug. "It's starting to work," I tell them. "You can all feel it, can't you?"
    Dillon comes in from the kitchen with the drinks. I hand one of them to Conrad, who thanks me, and one to Kat, who takes it silently. "Feel what?" I ask.
    Brad gestures to the smoldering bowl at the center of the coffee table, at the Callipsarian pipe, and whatever that shit was we've all been smoking.
    "Something very strange is happening to me," Kat says.
    Brad ignores her. "You see, I had this idea. A few weeks ago, Dillon and I were talking politics, and he brings up this thing about Rawls."
    Conrad sighs and orders the computer to take a break. I want to watch the end of the game, but this is starting to feel really weird.
    Alyssa comes out of the bathroom, looking gorgeous, as always. I sit down on the couch next to Conrad. "What's going on, Brad?" I ask. "What was that stuff you gave us?"
    "Just sit and listen," Brad says. "All will become clear."
    Conrad turns to Dillon. "Who's Rawls?"
    "John Rawls," I explain, puzzled about where this is going. "20th-century. He tried to revive the social contract theory, which states that the only fair laws are those that everyone can agree to."
    "Whatever." Alyssa tosses her hair. "Someone get me another drink."
    Conrad holds up a hand to her. "Quiet," I say. "I want to hear this."
    Dillon shrugs and keeps going. "The problem with the social contract is that people don't agree. Slave-owners think that slavery is fair, slaves don't. So Rawls envisions a hypothetical situation in which the two of them don't know who is who. Put behind this veil of ignorance, neither would support slavery, knowing that he himself might be the slave." I start to see where this is going, and finish, "Once self-interest is cancelled out, it turns out that they agree on principle."
    Kat interrupts. "Brad, will you cut the shit and tell us what's going on?" I say. "Why can't I tell who I am?" Then Dillon starts to answer my question, in that patronizing tone of his.
    "Don't you see?" he says. "We've been put behind a veil of ignorance ourselves."
    "Very good." Brad nods at him. "A few weeks ago I was hanging out with this Callipsarian dealer on Far-Guardport -- "
    Alyssa frowns. "Which ones are they?" I ask softly. "Callipsarians?"
    "The purple ones," Kat says. "From Auropelli. With the tentacles. Three yellow eyes."
    "Oh yeah," I say.
    Conrad elbows me. "Quiet."
    " -- and we were totally trashed. Talking politics, philosophy, metaphysics, et cetera, et cetera, and I start telling it about this veil of ignorance idea, and it says it's got some stuff that can do that. So it sells me -- "
    "Why?" Dillon asks. My word hangs there, alone in the silence for a few moments.
    "Well look," Brad says. "This group, this band of friends -- if that's what you want to call us -- is broken. We all know it, but no one wants to say it. Well I said it." He levels his finger at Conrad. "Conrad treats his girlfriend like shit. He also treats Dillon like shit. That is, unless Dillon starts picking on one of the girls, in which case Conrad gangs up with him. And of course," he finishes, "everyone treats me like shit all the time."
    "Conrad does not treat me like shit," Alyssa says, offended.
    "Quiet," he tells her.
    "I thought this might clear the air," Brad says. "Behind our very own veil of ignorance, some of us may reach a new consensus on how we ought to be treating each other."
    Alyssa says, "I don't like this. I don't like having someone else controlling my body, even for a moment." I feel violated.
    "No one else is controlling your body." Brad sighs. "That's not how it works. The drug creates localized telepathy with scrambled ego. Alyssa's brain is still controlling Alyssa's body. Alyssa's thoughts -- "
    "To the extent that she has any," Dillon interjects.
    " -- are still her own. The only difference is, now everyone experiences everyone's thoughts, and no one knows which set of thoughts is his own."
    Kat crosses her arms. "I don't want to share my thoughts."
    Brad shrugs. "Too late," I say. "Don't do drugs."
    Conrad gets to his feet. He looks pissed off. "I think Brad needs to have his ass kicked for pulling this little stunt."
    "No," Dillon says, "think about it. Our identities are all mixed together. If Conrad hits Brad, we all feel it equally. What's the point of that?"
    "Hmmm." Conrad thinks for a moment, then says, "So we just wait until the drug wears off, then hit him."
    Kat glances at him. "What if you're Brad?" I ask. That stops him.
    And that's really the point, isn't it? There are five sets of consciousness here, but none of us knows which personality belongs to us.
    When the drug wears off, I'll be one of these people. But who? Right now I'm Kat. The boys don't like me. They think I'm weird, because I wear black, and have my own ideas. They only let me hang around because I'm friends with Alyssa. She's more their type: pretty and popular and -- I'm sorry to say it, because she is my friend -- vapid. She doesn't even notice when they make fun of her. But still, she's pretty, and looks are all that matter when you're a girl.
    Am I a girl?
    If so, let me be Alyssa, not Kat.
    I don't want to be Kat.
 


 
    "I'm starting to get a headache," Brad says. "I can feel it coming on."
    Conrad grunts, "Good."
    Dillon nods. "Yeah, seriously, Brad," he says. "You have no right to be complaining about anything right now."
    Brad looks sullen. "I get really bad headaches."
    "We know." Conrad sighs. "We've heard." He gets up from the couch and paces around the living room. He wheels on Brad. "See, this is why you get picked on. This is why no one likes you. You're weak. You whine all the time. You're a -- " He turns to Dillon. "What?"
    "Hypochondriac?" Dillon offers.
    "Yes," Conrad says, pointing. "Thank you. A hypochondriac. We all get headaches, Brad. We deal with them. For you it's like the end of the world."
    "Well, you'll see," Brad says angrily. "Tonight, you'll all feel what my headaches are like. And I'm used to it. You're not."
    Conrad shakes his head. "Whatever. I'm so intimidated." The truth is I'm sick of Brad and his goddamn attitude. He thinks he's so clever, trying to make us feel sorry for him. Well, I didn't start this game, but I can choose to play it my way. Let's have some fun with this.
    I walk over to Alyssa, take her hand and pull her to her feet. "Come on upstairs," I tell her. "I want to show you something."
    Alyssa hesitates. I know what he's thinking. I guess we all do, because this drug is mixing our thoughts together, but even without the drug I would still know, because he's got that look. "Come on," he repeats, and pulls me along after him, toward the stairs.
    Brad scowls. I should have known. Conrad likes to do her so that we can all hear her moaning, just to let everyone know who she belongs to. Now we'll do a lot more than hear them.
    Tonight I offer them a chance to get outside themselves, to comprehend our sad situation, to make a new start. And all he can see is a new opportunity to show us up. I glance at Dillon, who's grinning. "What are you so thrilled about?"
    "He's really going to do it," Dillon says. "We're all going to. I've always wanted to. And don't tell me you haven't."
    Kat looks weak and pale and scared. I am scared. I say nothing.
    "No," Brad says. "She's an imbecile. I don't find that attractive."
    "Liar," Dillon answers. "Everyone wants her." I glance at Kat. "What, no wry observations this time, Kat?" I laugh. "Well, this is pretty fucked up," I say. "I don't remember anything like this in Rawls."
    Even as I say it, I experience a twinge of self-loathing. I'm such an ass. So cocky, so sarcastic. Why do I act this way?
    Because I know that as long as someone else is the butt of the joke, it won't be me. How pathetic. For a moment I feel an overwhelming sense of shame. But then I remember I'm not Dillon. At least, probably not. Or maybe I am.
    I don't want to be Dillon.

    Conrad lies in bed, among tangled sheets. I always hate myself, afterward.
    My thoughts are terribly lucid, unclouded by the distractions of desire and drink and noise. It's in these moments that I can't escape the truth. My friends are losers. I despise my girlfriend. I stay with her because she's hot, and I hate myself for being so superficial. I'm rich and good-looking and athletic and successful. I've had every advantage, so why can't I do better than this? Than these people?
    At least the sex was good. That's what I used to think.
    But tonight . . . my thoughts kept getting mixed with hers -- I was her, and I felt nothing but boredom, frustration, a straining to achieve some pleasure, before it was over. And it was over too soon.
    That's Brad's fault, I tell myself -- him and his goddamn headache. I feel it, in those moments when I'm him, and how are you supposed to perform with a headache like that? Now I have to go back downstairs and face them. They all know. What a miserable night this has turned out to be for Conrad.
    For me?
    I hope I'm not Conrad.
    I look at Alyssa, and know that she knows these thoughts. I don't care.
    Alyssa slips angrily from the bed and starts getting dressed. I almost fall over yanking on my panties, I'm so mad. What a shithead! What a goddamn asshole. "I only stay with you because you buy me things," I tell him over my shoulder. At least I didn't have to fake it this time. I dress in the dark. By the time I've got my clothes on, my mind is made up: I'm dumping him. If I'm Alyssa, I'm definitely dumping him. I mean it this time.
    But what if I'm not Alyssa? What if I'm Conrad? In that case, maybe I shouldn't dump him. Or rather, Alyssa shouldn't. God, my head hurts to think like this.
    The truth is, they're both really sad people, and I don't want to be either one of them. And I realize then that I don't want to be any of these people: not Conrad who's arrogant, or Alyssa who's dumb, or Kat who's weird, or Dillon who's sarcastic, or Brad who's whiny.
    Is this how the people felt in Rawl's thought experiment? When they were floating free for a time, divorced from the tyranny of identity? Maybe they would choose never to go back. Pure consciousness is an amazing thing, but actual personalities are always broken and unpleasant. It's not fair that our thoughts should be imprisoned in identities.
    I start to dread the moment when this wonderful and terrible drug I purchased will begin to fade, and I'll be trapped as one of these people. Now I realize that I've been lost in reverie, and my thoughts have grown too profound to be Alyssa's. Sure enough, I'm Brad again. I glance up as Conrad and Alyssa troop miserably down the stairs.
 


 
    My headaches don't start out that bad, but then they get worse.
    A pressure is building along my hairline. Then it starts to squeeze, like someone's wrapped a rope around my brow and is twisting it tighter and tighter. The pain starts to pulse, ranging from bad to unbearable. There's quick, stabbing pain if I move my head. And constant nausea.
    For a moment I'm Alyssa, and the pain is gone, but I know it'll be back any moment.
    Conrad tells Brad, "Take some pills."
    "It won't do any good," Brad says. "It never does."
    "Take them!" Conrad barks.
    Brad shrugs. I wander over into the bathroom, pain like hammer-blows falling on my temples. I rummage through the medicine cabinet, find some pills, and swallow them. I return to the living room.
    "We've got to make this stop," Conrad says.
    Dillon nods in agreement. "Hey Brad," I say. "When is this headache going to wear off?"
    "By morning," he replies.
    Conrad is incredulous. "By morning? No way. There's got to be something we can do."
    "The telepathy must have a maximum range," Kat says quietly. "The field -- it can't stretch forever."
    Conrad nods. "Right, so let's just hop on the yacht and leave him here."
    "You can't," Brad says. "I ordered the yacht to do a tune-up. It won't be ready to fly until tomorrow."
    Conrad takes three quick steps and shoves Brad hard. "What the hell did you do that for?"
    Brad stumbles, recovers his balance. "No one's running away. Not tonight. What's the matter, Conrad? Don't like being me? Or Kat? Or Alyssa? Welcome to the club."
    Conrad turns away. He starts to pace furiously.
    "Don't you see?" Brad is almost shouting now. "We have a chance here tonight. We can agree on how each of us should be treated, and be bound by that commitment. That's the beauty of the veil of ignorance. For example, we know that Brad really does get terrible headaches, pain that the rest of the group, until tonight, couldn't even imagine. So let's agree to be more sympathetic. Remember, any of you might be Brad."
    There are a few moments of awkward silence. Everyone exchanges sideways glances.
    Conrad shakes his head. "Screw Brad," I announce. "He's an asshole, and Conrad is going to kick his ass when this is over. And Brad deserves it. Even if I'm Brad, I don't care. He still deserves it." I pause. "I don't think I am, though. How could I be him? No way."
    Kat rolls her eyes. "You have no way of knowing," I say. "You're being irrational."
    "And even if you are Conrad," Brad adds, "you still might want to listen." He looks at each of us in turn. "We've all learned some things tonight about Conrad. He's going to get a lot of shit for that -- unless we all agree right now to go easy on him."
    Conrad glares at Brad with absolute fury.
    Dillon backs out of the way. Strangely enough, in this tense moment, I start thinking about Rawls again -- about some of the critiques of his theory. Rawls believed that people subjected to a veil of ignorance would do the rational thing -- agree to a society that's fair to everyone. That's what Brad thought too.
    But maybe they wouldn't. Maybe people would still set up things like slavery, because each person would simply gamble that he'll be the owner and not the slave. It's not the rational thing to do, but people are often not rational -- an idea that's foremost in my thoughts as I watch the crazed expression coming over Conrad.
    Over me. The pain of Brad's headache is driving me absolutely insane. Brad is driving me absolutely insane. I want it to stop, I want him to stop. Anything, to make it stop.
    But Brad's just standing there with his smug grin. "I told you my headaches were bad, but you wouldn't listen. You never listen to me because you're a spoiled asshole. But now you see I'm right. Who's weak now, huh? Who's the one who can't take it?"
    I lunge for him. "Don't you come to my house and talk to me like that." I punch Brad, who goes down, and I fall on top of him, and start slamming his shoulders against the floor. Then my fingers find Brad's throat and start to choke him. "If he's unconscious," I announce furiously, "then we won't have to feel his headache, or his weakness, or his goddamn resentment."
    Alyssa starts screaming. I start screaming.
    Kat leaps forward and tries to drag Conrad off, but he's too big. "Stop it!" I yell at him. "You're going to kill him!" Dillon stands by doing nothing. He's frozen. Just contemplating the theoretical implications of this strangling.
    Conrad's grip tightens. I'm squeezing. I hear Kat's words and realize that she's right, I am going to kill him. It has this awful sense of inevitability, because I hate him so much, despise him. I have no choice. But it's not really me doing it, is it? At least, probably it's not.
    Brad's thrashing is growing weaker. And now everything's going dark and numb, like my head's being dipped in ice water. I can't see. I hardly notice the pain in my neck anymore. I know I'm going to die and I don't want to die. I mean, I really, really don't want to die here on this floor, but then I realize that it's not me that's dying. Brad is dying and I'm not him. At least, I'm probably not. Or maybe I am.
    I don't want to be Brad.

    I'm screaming.
    Because I'm dead.
    I'm dead I'm dead. I'm Brad and I'm dead.
    I felt it, that moment when life stopped, that instant when it ended. Don't think don't think about it.
    I'm screaming. I can't be dead if I'm screaming and three other people are screaming too: Conrad is screaming and Dillon is screaming and Kat is screaming, and I look down at my body and see that I'm Alyssa.
    No, I'm Conrad now, and I make myself stop screaming. Stop it. Just stop.
    I make myself look at Brad.
    He's on his back -- arms splayed, legs splayed. I can't see his face. His head is turned away. All I see is a mess of dark, curly hair.
    But now I'm Kat and now I can see his face. Oh God, his eyes are open. They're staring. I throw a hand over my mouth and turn away.
    Conrad pivots, stomps a few steps, circles back. Then I am Conrad and my life is over. Ruined. How could this happen? How could this possibly happen? Brad's headache ended along with his life and now my thoughts are clear and sharp and cold. Very, very cold.
    Alyssa's palms are pressed against her temples. "You killed him!" I shout.
    Kat moves toward the computer. "I'm calling for help."
    Conrad shouts, "No."
    Dillon holds out a hand. "Wait."
    Kat comes to a stop. Watching. Guarded.
    "Let me think a second." Dillon starts to pace. I'm Alyssa waiting, then Conrad waiting, and then Kat when he says, "We've got to cover it up."
    "No," I tell him.
    "Think, Kat," Dillon says softly. "What if you're Conrad?"
    "Then I'll pay the price." But even as I say it, I feel a twinge of doubt. What if I really am Conrad? I try to imagine what it would be like if the drug finally wore off and I looked down and saw Conrad's body -- my body, maybe -- standing alone. I can't. I can't. It's too much.
    Alyssa fidgets. "What are we going to do?" I ask.
    "Cover it up," Dillon explains. He takes a deep breath. "It's the only thing that makes sense. Any one of us might be Conrad. So we all swear right now never to tell anybody. No one knows Brad was here. We dispose of the body, and for all anyone knows he was eaten by one of those Callipsarian scumbags he always hung out with."
    Conrad steps forward. "Anyway, it would serve him right if that had happened," I say, awkwardly. "This whole thing was his fault. It's the drug that did it all. What was he thinking . . . slipping us some fucked up alien drug?"
    Dillon turns and gazes at Kat. "Come on," I prod her. "It's the only way." I know she'll break. I was her just a second ago. She can't go to jail. She won't.
    "All right," she whispers, in a hollow voice.
    Alyssa agrees too. "Okay," I say. "Okay, let's do that."
    Conrad nods. "I'll load him into my yacht. As soon as it's ready to fly, we swing into a low orbit and launch the body down into Hades-3. It won't last a second down there."
    "Fine," Dillon says. "Go. Do it." Conrad takes Brad's body under the armpits and starts to drag.
    Kat wanders over to the window again and looks down at the planet. I used to think it was so amazing, so awe-inspiring. Now I look at those red bands and feel only horror. I can't look away. I know that for the rest of my life I'm going to remember this sight, and remember Brad, and be afraid.
    I'll turn Conrad in. Whatever I say now, whatever I promise, it's a lie. If the drug wears off and I'm not Conrad, I'll turn him in. I have to.
    But what if I am Conrad? Then I can't trust Kat. Then I have to do something about Kat.
    Conrad stops. He tosses Brad's body aside. Dillon stands totally still. They're both staring at me.
    Dillon sighs. "So much for that plan." We can't trust Kat not to talk. I should know, I was just her.
    "Get rid of her too," Conrad grumbles. It's the first thing to pop into my head, but even before it's out of my mouth, I realize the problem, which Dillon kindly points out.
    "What if you're Kat?" he says.
    I groan. "So what do we do?"
    Dillon thinks for a minute. "I have an idea," he says.
    Then I am Dillon, and it's my idea.
    A terrible, terrible idea.
    But it's the only thing I can think of.

    We wait for a Callipsarian dealer that Conrad knows. I'm Conrad and Alyssa and Dillon and Kat and Conrad and Alyssa and Dillon and Kat. No one says anything. It seems to go on forever.
    It will go on forever.
    The Callipsarian docks its yacht. I'm Kat when it enters the room. It's taller than any of us, sinuous, and it smells like an ozone sea. I've never seen one whose mottled tentacles were such a dark shade of purple, or whose three eyes blazed such a bright and terrible yellow. It regards us.
    Conrad shows it the pipe. "We want more of this," I demand.
    The Callipsarian snatches the pipe, and examines it.
    "Enough to last a decade," Dillon adds. "Enough to last forever, if we need it to."
    The Callipsarian is very accommodating. "Tell your friends," it rasps. "Plenty to go around. Enough for every last human, if they want it."
    After the Callipsarian leaves, Dillon offers the pipe to Kat. "There's enough in here to keep us going for weeks."
    She hesitates.
    Dillon scowls. "Take it, Kat. Otherwise, it's a one in four chance of being Conrad. Only you and only Conrad. Your choice."
    Kat takes the pipe. I smoke it. So do the others. Now I'll never betray Conrad. I might be him.
    It occurs to me later, when I'm Dillon, that maybe Brad succeeded, in some sick way. Kat or Dillon or Alyssa would have turned in Conrad in a second. But behind the veil of ignorance, we all agreed to help him out, and we always will. It's too bad Brad isn't around to see it. I'm glad I wasn't him, at least.
    Sometimes I wonder who I am.
    Not that it matters.
    Not anymore.
 


 

Questions or comments? Email me. You can also check out what's new on my blog or browse a complete list of my short stories. And be sure to listen to my Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast, featuring interviews with authors such as Richard Dawkins, George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Chuck Palahniuk, China Mieville, and Simon Pegg. If you want to support my writing and podcasting, you can make a payment directly to me.