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 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.
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.
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