“Why did you kill the cow?”
It hadn’t been my daughter’s first awkward question, but it was the first that I can remember. I remember it because it was the first time she hadn’t been satisfied with the answer I gave her. Her understanding of the world had grown, and she was starting to connect more and more complex concepts.
It was as beautiful a spring as I can recall. Golden sun, green grass, refreshing breeze, and singing birds could not have predicted the approaching storm. I had been enjoying the day on the back porch with my wife, Angela, and daughter, Chrystal. These moments of tranquility are precious and fleeting.
“The cow was raised so we could eat it.” I replied, before taking another bite of the hamburger that I had removed from my smoking grill moments earlier. “It’s meat.”
“We didn’t kill the cow,” Angela added as she smiled at Chrystal.
“How does she even know hamburger comes from cows? How did she draw the correlation between killing animals and meat?” Angela’s Neuralink message was conjured within my thoughts silently along our private conduit. The sensation is like hearing a whisper that you can’t quite make out, but you understand its meaning anyway. It takes a while to get used to, and we were late adopters. Once we were in, once our brainwaves were synchronized to the worldwide internet, it instantly became ubiquitous throughout our daily lives.
“Should I pick up dinner on my way home?” I could send my thought into the ether and Angela could reply.
“My year-end bonus was more than expected!” Angela and I could share our joys and sorrows instantly.
“This is going to be a tricky conversation,” we could coordinate our parenting in ways we had never imagined and share our trepidation as a new pitfall presented itself.
It could not prepare us for the depth of that pit. We — the collective we — had taken another stride into a new human epoch from which we could never go back.
Could we go back to a time before Neuralink? Verbalink? Wireless? Text messaging? Email? Internet? Telephone? Telegraph? Mail? Writing? Amid ceaseless human progress, Angela, Chrystal, and I found ourselves having a conversation over hamburgers on a beautiful spring day.
The private messages between Angela and I had increased in frequency as we became acclimated to Neuralink. It was also a valuable tool for collaborative parenting when children were learning to spell earlier and earlier. Gone were the days of: “Should we get I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M?” In the presence of our child. Now we simply shared a thought.
Today, those thoughts were navigating how to talk to a four-year-old about where meat comes from.
“Yes, you did! You killed the cow!” Chrystal refuted Angela’s claim. She then turned to me with a look of disgust. Her blue eyes, framed by wispy brown hair and chubby cheeks that had only recently begun shedding baby fat, darted from me, to Angela, and then to her own hamburger. “We can eat carrots or peanuts or lettuce. Why did you have to kill the cow?”
“Do you want to take this one, or should I?” I sent a Neuralink message back to Angela as I leaned forward in my chair.
“Go ahead,” Angela’s responded silently. “Stay light on gory details if she gets curious.”
“Well,” I cleared my throat and took a moment to collect my thoughts. “Farmers raise cows to provide meat and milk. After a long, happy life on the farm playing with all the other animals, they get turned into hamburger and sent to the grocery store for us to buy. Or, if they are milk cows, they just make more milk for us to drink.
“I know all that,” Chrystal’s tone was irritable. “Why did youkill the cow?”
“Maybe you can give it a shot?” I fired off another message to my wife.
Angela’s explanation was no better than mine. The conversation quickly moved from cows to pigs and chickens and all the other animals that fit into our agricultural system. By the end of it, Chrystal was as upset as I had ever seen her. She refused to eat her hamburger. Despite our insistence to the contrary, she continued to accuse us of having personally killed the cow. The tantrum was legendary.
The books say to ignore tantrums like these, but that is not easy. Fortunately, children are designed with a built-in failsafe — exhaustion. When the frenzy of screaming and tears had run its course, I collected the tiny sleeping girl who remained, and put her to bed.
“I can’t sleep.” Said my wife, hours later in the darkness of our bedroom. Her voice was startling within the stillness. We had begun to communicate via Neuralink almost more than through words.
“Me neither. Should I turn our buffers up?” Once someone’s brainwaves are synced to Neuralink, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the never-ending barrage of communication. With a thought, a user can filter priority activity or turn off Neuralink completely. Many of the older folks keep their buffers on all the time, preferring to rely on obsolete technology like cellular phones or even email. Many parents don’t allow their children to sync to Neuralink until 13 or 14, but after that most teenagers rarely use their buffers.
In my youth, people were worried about too much screen time. Now we worry about too much thought-consuming. Neuralink had been inadvertently sharing my and Angela’s thoughts as we lay awake dwelling upon on our earlier conversation with our daughter. It happens sometimes with people, often couples, who are used to leaving their channels open to one another. Even after you close them, they sometimes slip open unconsciously. It’s almost like there isn’t enough room in your brain for your thoughts, and your mind finds a drain for the excess. If your partner is also experiencing insomnia, the result can be maddening.
“I have a big day at work tomorrow,” Angela replied. “I don’t want to lose any messages in the backlog.”
“Ok,” I responded as I pushed myself out of bed, resigned that it would be hours before we could get any sleep. “Want anything to drink?”
I made my way through my pitch-black home, found the kitchen, poured two glasses of water, and made my way back down the hall.
“They shouldn’t kill things,” I heard Chrystal’s tiny voice from the other side of her bedroom door. I peered through the crack and saw my toddler sitting on her bed with her back to me. The glow of the nightlight bathed a menagerie of stuffed animals — bears, dogs, and cats in all manner of smiling dispositions — assembled upon her pillow in a soft orange hue. “Animals want to live, and raising animals for food is bad. They hurt. And mom and dad hurt the earth and even their heart when they do it. It’s bad!”
I remember thinking that school was teaching children a great deal more than when I was young. I supposed that if all the kids were learning those things, then there wasn’t anything to be concerned about. I thought it was a good thing that Chrystal was learning so much. Looking back, I realize how stupid that idea was.
The livestock industry collapsed almost overnight. My wife and I thought it was a phase that Chrystal had decided to become vegan. She flat out refused to eat any animal products, and we learned over the next few days that every other child — not every child at daycare, not every child in our city, every single child on earth from the age of six and younger — also refused to eat animal products.
The peculiarity of the worldwide collaboration did not go unnoticed. There were many theories — the most obvious was a glitch in the Neuralink, but a subsequent investigation indicated that hadn’t been the case.
Initially, we tried to make her eat meat, but it was a hard battle, and not one that we wanted to fight three times a day, every day. Parents everywhere, myself and Angela included, continued to buy meat for ourselves while feeding our children the plant-based meals they requested. Other parents just went vegan with their kids because it was easier during meal preparation. Economics is a tricky thing, and meat, cheese, eggs, and milk became unbelievably cheap, then terribly expensive in the span of a month. Without stability, investors sold stock in agriculture. Entire restaurant menus went meat-free. Grocery stores replaced their butchers’ sections with more fresh produce. The market was in turmoil.
The news was ridiculous. First there was incredulity. Then, as advertisers put pressure on prominent leaders and government figures, there was outright anger. Magazines were filled with strategies for tricking children into eating animal products. The deception never lasted more than a day, and was countered by angry looks of distrust and thunderous tantrums. Television personalities told parents to feed their kid a stick of beef jerky with a spank on the behind on the way to an early bedtime. Children fought back by simply throwing up the masticated jerky. Despite the best efforts of the media, the children won. Those same anchors and magazines who had decried veganism as an economic scourge and advocated literal violence upon stubborn children were now singing the health and environmental benefits. Even energy consumption had been reduced because grocers and restaurants did not need to devote as much energy and space to refrigeration. I thought that heart disease rates would at least take a few months to show a change, but those too fell immediately.
The world was now vegan. If everything had stopped there, society might have looked back at that peculiar event with a bit of a chuckle. But it didn’t.
“Why did you kill them?!” Chrystal burst into our bedroom in a whirlwind of cries and yelling. Angela and I woke from sleep as if the house were on fire. After collecting our bearings, we cradled our daughter and did our best to console her. The three of us sat upon our warm bed amidst the soft yellow glow of a bedside lamp.
A couple years had passed since the last outburst like this, and Chrystal was now 6. There had been other peculiar questions and strange changes in that time, but none as major as worldwide veganism. Angela and I had had countless Neuralink conversations anticipating the next big thing, and we thought we had prepared ourselves, but we hadn’t.
“Why did you kill them?” Chrystal wept as Angela rocked her.
“Killed who?” I asked as I rubbed Chrystal’s little legs.
“The people. They were getting married!” Chrystal collapsed into a fit of sobs.
“What on earth is she talking about?” I sent the Neuralink message to Angela before I realized that she had already sent me a Newsynapse. “What, really?” I asked with resistance to the thought of browsing the news while comforting our daughter.
“Swallow it,” she replied in the new vernacular. News was still watched and read, but since Neuralink it was most often sent as thought directly to subscribers’ minds. Someone had coined a term from an old science fiction movie where a character acquires knowledge by taking a pill. Since we did not yet have a term for this new method of information consumption, the term ‘swallow it’ stuck.
The article was perhaps minutes old. The U.S. Military had accidentally bombed a wedding in Syria, and hundreds of civilians had been killed. We were always dropping bombs on people half way around the world, and there was nothing remarkable about the article. It could have easily gotten lost in hundreds of other articles reporting on American military actions all over the earth. Somehow Chrystal had gotten ahold of it.
“We didn’t kill anyone,” Angela whispered over and over again to our daughter while I conjured a digital readout of household Neuralink activity on the nearby wall. The manifestation gave me detailed information in colorful graphics that never existed as visible light. Rather, the Neuralink administrative system intercepted the signal from my eyes to my brain and inserted its own information seamlessly into my optic nerve.
I knew — we all knew — that’s how Neuralink administration functioned, and it never dawned on us that there might be a problem with that.
“Nothing unusual. No leaks,” I quickly determined and shared with Angela. “Even if the parental buffer controls were not working, which they appear to be, her brainwaves are not even close to synchronizing.”
“Why did you kill them!?” Chrystal shrugged Angela away and glared at the both of us. “Why?”
Resolved that Chrystal was not receptive to the argument that Angela and I hadn’t killed anyone; I did my best to find an adequate explanation. “This country helps to keep everyone safe,” I began. “Unfortunately, they make mistakes sometimes, and people get hurt when they are trying to stop the bad guys.”
Chrystal’s eyes searched mine for a very long stretch of time, and for a moment I thought my answer had satisfied her.
“What bad guys?”
“Well,” Angela pulled the blanket up around Chrystal. “Far, far away in other countries, there are bad guys who want to hurt innocent people. The people who were hurt by mistake were probably very close to the bad guys. It’s very sad.”
“Someday,” I added. “There won’t be any more bad guys, and America won’t make any more mistakes.”
“Don’t tell her that!” Angela’s message came through too late.
“Are you the bad guys?” Chrystal asked. The question did not feel like a question though. It felt like an accusation.
“No! We love you. We wouldn’t hurt anyone,” I hugged Chrystal, but the embrace was brief. She pushed me away and scrambled off the bed.
With a suspicious look — a look that stuck with me, for I had never seen it before — Chrystal slowly left the bedroom, keeping her back to the wall as she went. “I’m ok now. Good night, mommy. Good night, daddy.”
“What the hell?” I messaged Angela.
“I sent a message to Neuralink support.” Angela replied. “They’re ‘experiencing an abnormally large number of requests’ and ‘may take longer than usual to respond’.”
The rest of the night was sleepless. The expression of my daughter appraising me as if I were a killer — as if Angela and I had knowingly dropped a bomb on that wedding ourselves — continued to dance through my thoughts. It would be far from the last time I would see it.
Vegan toddlers cannot bring an end to all war with tantrums and holding their breath, though they certainly tried. After a few days, the world’s children calmed down and we began to think that perhaps they would forget about the wedding in Syria.
It soon became clear that it was impossible to forget. The reporting on conflicts around the world — the news that we generally filter from our feed — continued. The algorithms and subscription notifications deliver us the news we preferred. Each headline passed through our minds like sand through a sieve and left only the choice bits to show us the world we wanted to see. We lost sight of what was true, what was important — but our children did not.
“Celebrity releases new perfume to hit shelves next month!”
“Two-hundred killed in Afghan market bombing.”
“World Series goes to game seven!”
“Dozens of civilians killed in crossfire with terrorists.”
“… caught with prostitute.”
“… killed while fleeing insurgents.”
“… new car.”
“… family killed…”
“… new movie…”
Chrystal’s suspicious expression that had burned itself into my memory became her default. All children wore it. Gone were the giggle-filled play times. Gone were the bedtime stories. Every conversation began and ended with one question: “Why did you kill them?”
The superficial explanations we offered were not satisfactory.
The powers that thrive in and profit from state-sanctioned violence — government, business, media — certainly tried to intervene. Neuralink was taken offline, but when that appeared to have no effect, it was returned to service. Politicians whose districts employed constituents who built military equipment made fiery appeals to patriotism and freedom, but their arguments now seemed silly. The cherished moments we shared with our kids were now joyless. Dropping a bomb on someone halfway around the world wasn’t going to return the happiness.
If this — a life of looking into our children’s eyes, seeing their innocence replaced by a terrible unanswerable question — is what we had been fighting and killing for all these years, we had been horrifically misguided. Most soldiers have children, and they all have families. Even the most cold-hearted war-profiteer needs workers to build weapons, and clients to sell their product. Ruthless warlords and esteemed Generals, along with their lieutenants, were forced to ask what they were fighting for. To say it was a multi-pronged assault from our kids would be an understatement. Everyone simply wanted their children back. We loved these cold creatures that judged us at every encounter.
This is when we came to understand the “you” in “Why did you kill them?”. The conflict of our time was no longer the Free World versus Terrorism, America versus Russia, or Allies versus Axis. It was good versus evil boiled down to its most basic form: that it is wrong to kill contrasted with the idea that it is ok to kill those who are different than us, especially if it’s far away or accidental. We, the “we” of the distant suburban family and the “we” of the front-line soldier, were part of a system that had been snuffing out the lives of men, women, and children for land, oil, religion, and money for generations. This new generation that we had so recently created saw that for the horror for what it was, and they brought an end to it.
Voices on all sides that advocated for military solutions fell silent. Leaders of previously violent conflicts met across negotiating tables and were forced to confront complex issues through discussion. Killing was no longer an acceptable way to resolve disagreements. Problems were not solved overnight, but gradually they were solved.
All the while, we were determined to figure out how our kids were doing this. They had ended war on earth, and our impulse was to worry about what they were going to do next.
No longer protected by the luxury of blaming faceless villains, we were forced to think more critically about our own behavior. The impossible challenges our society faced had always been solvable, we had simply been indifferent to them. Our resentment was palpable.
One night, I passed Chrystal’s bedroom door again as I had a few years prior, and once again I heard her talking. Her bedroom had changed, but the soft nightlight remained. Gone was the assembly of stuffed animals. Gone were the toys that had been heaped upon her by friends and relatives. There was no longer room within her world for silly songs and bright cartoon characters. The fixtures that should fill her with delight and allow her to experience childhood with a carefree curiosity were replaced by knowledge and purpose wildly beyond her years.
Her tiny hands clasped the blankets to her chin within a spartan room nearly devoid of possessions, save books. She muttered with eyes fixed upon the ceiling. “There is still so much to do. What’s next?”
“Who are you talking to, honey?” I asked this time, no longer content to await the next cataclysmic upheaval in our society.
Her blue eyes blinked back at me, but her expression remained otherwise unchanged. “What’s next, daddy?” Her small voice asked. “What needs to be fixed next?”
“You don’t need to fix anything, honey,” I replied as I stepped into her bedroom.
A flitter of a smile appeared on her face. “You’re going to fix things?”
“I…” Not knowing not to respond, I faltered and stumbled into a go-to parenting answer. “I will try.”
In response, Chrystal’s smile vanished, and she turned away from me. “Good night, daddy.”
I could feel her disappointment as I returned to my bedroom.
“Why did you let the sick person die?”
“Free healthcare for everyone.” Concluded Angela as we lay awake in bed. The Newsynapses were already raining in.
“They’ll say it can’t be done, and then it will be done because we will not have a choice.” I replied. I was right.
Three years had passed since the last bomb had dropped. Chrystal was now 9.
“Why is that factory putting poison in the air?”
“Renewable energy? Solar panels and wind farms?” Angela had taken to guessing what the children would demand, and what the eventual solution would be.
“Coal and oil will have Neuralink shut down for another inspection. They won’t find anything new. They’ll be defunct industries within a year.” I had taken to guessing how the “powers that be” would react. I was right.
In one sense, we had our children back, but it was not entirely the same. Many things had changed and continued to change.
“Why is that person sleeping on the street?”
“Universal basic income and housing.” Angela concluded.
“A lot of media personalities crying over ‘free rides’ and ‘socialism’. It won’t make a difference what they say.” I was right.
Our children’s’ suspicious expressions had vanished, but they were replaced by something else, something we recognized. It was accompanied by a change in Chrystal’s tone and manner of speaking. The combination provoked memories our own childhoods when we would do something stupid or irresponsible and our parents would ask, “Why did you do that?” The tone was even, but not accusatory. Stern, but not harsh. It invited umbrage and sometimes anger, but it demanded a thoughtful response. Something had reversed in our roles as her parents and hers as our child.
“It does seem like things have gotten a lot better,” Angela said one day at breakfast – verbally. She sipped her coffee while eating granola and toast while swallowing the previous day’s Newsynapse. “For all the predictions of doom and gloom, it turns out we can really solve important issues when we put our minds to it.”
The morning’s sun shone through the windows and bathed the room in bright, hopeful light. Chrystal was still in pajamas while Angela and I were still in our bedtime robes.
“I’d like to be synced to Neuralink,” Chrystal said with a smile. She had been in a much happier mood lately. The world’s biggest problems had been solved, or were being solved, and there were smaller things to focus on. Workers who had lost their jobs as a result of some shift in economic activity needed financial support. Homeowners who had been defrauded by their bank needed legal protection. Mental healthcare. Criminal Justice reform.
These were problems my generation had seen as insurmountable. We had mused that the next generation might address them. Turns out we were right, and that angered and frustrated us. These impossible problems were not only being solved, they were mere side projects to our children.
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Angela and I quickly concluded, noting the irony in how this little girl who could collaborate with her peers to solve world hunger and end poverty, still had to ask permission. There was risk of exposing her to propaganda, pornography, or violence, but with parental buffers, she would be well protected.
I conjured the administrative controls and began making the necessary changes to synchronize Chrystal’s brain waves. That’s when I noticed Chrystal watching me. She wasn’t watching my hands wave about the air nonsensically, she was watching my hands glide over the virtual administrative controls — controls only I could see. I stopped.
“Can you see what I’m doing?” I asked.
Chrystal nodded. “Of course.”
“But,” I checked the brainwave readout. “You haven’t been synced yet. Even if you had been, you shouldn’t be able to see what I’m doing.” Curiosity bloomed within my mind.
“I know,” Chrystal replied in a mater-of-fact tone.
“Support ticket sent,” Angela sipped her coffee. “Is this another one of those… big things?”
“Possibly,” I resumed synchronizing Chrystal to Neuralink and adjusting the appropriate level of parental control. Her ability to see me do it certainly should not have been possible, but it shouldn’t be possible for every 4-year-old on earth to decide to stop eating hamburgers at the same time either, so I took it in stride. “There you go,” I said as I watched the Neuralink wavelength and amplitude self-correct a few times before overlaying on Chrystal’s brainwave with a shimmer.
All those Neuralink investigations, all those times doomed entities demanded an explanation for our children’s newfound power, all had shown nothing out of the ordinary. Yet the answer was literally in front of us the entire time.
“Hello, daddy!” Chrystal’s first message came through, and I smiled.
Angela smiled too, and I concluded she had received a similar message.
“Welcome! I’m so happy you’re here,” Came Chrystal’s second message. Something began to materialize behind her in a glow familiar to that of the admin console — a conjured apparition the result of a digital insertion into my optic nerve. It was overlaid upon the dining room like a bad movie effect.
Admin consoles, parental controls: digital insertions into my central nervous system that could just as easily be anything — specifically “nothing out of the ordinary,” when there was. Troubleshooting, investigations, audits: Signals indicating Neuralink was temporarily offline for investigation and maintenance — when it was not. Buffers, synchronizing: graphic readouts that brainwaves, a child’s brainwaves, were not in sync with Neuralink…
When they were.
“I’m happy to be here with you,” I replied. It became clear that the objects behind Chrystal were moving. As they came into view, so too did a cacophony of laughter, unrest, and chatter.
Angela and I shared a glance. We were seeing the same thing.
“Welcome… bienvenida… bienvenue… willkommen…” echoed an ocean of replies in a thousand different languages. It was nearly overwhelming, and soon an infinite field of child-sized figures danced in vibrant light to the horizon behind my daughter. It was also clear that they were not only speaking to Angela and me. There were other parents greeting their children for the first time in this way.
“How long have you been connected to Neuralink?” I asked. My imagination was grasping for an explanation. Was some rogue Neuralink technician responsible for syncing children without permission? Was there some artificial intelligence or algorithmic glitch that had wrought havoc? Did it matter?
“Silly daddy,” My nine-year-old daughter giggled with childlike laughter that I had nearly forgotten. For the first time in years, perhaps for the first time since she was four, she was truly delighted. “I’ve been here since before I was born.”
As she spoke, millions of tiny lights shimmered through the firmament of illusionary children. Their presence danced about the digital connection like fireflies. These were the visual manifestations of minds newly connected to Neuralink yet physically unformed — though already part of the whole.
They did not become synced. They were born synced. It was we — the adults — who were joining our children for the first time within a collective unconscious.
“This is my home.” Came infinite assertions in every imaginable language.
“This is my home.” Repeated Chrystal. “And there is still a lot of work to do.”