A man and a woman, vagrants sat on discarded packaging. Covering themselves in branded canvas bags, keeping out the swollen drops of rain. I envy the warmth of their lit smokes and muffled laughter.
Scanning my thumbprint on their begging bowl device, I wave them a few spare credits as I pass. Our eyes never meet. A giver’s remorse fills me, wondering whether I’m abetting poor choices. Nervous, I imagine the worse possible cases: they may now wish to rob me. I pick up the pace.
Rounding the corner, disregarding the vestiges of my shame at such thoughts, I justify my fear. If not them, it would be me. The clear rationality of my argument lightens my burden, I forget them.
The tents outside the Courts of Justice are burgeoning with discarded people. The Unmeasurables. Their petitioning signs witness to claims of former lives now made redundant. They don’t know the value of education. I am confident in my own lifelong learning habits. What welfare did they expect now that the world is perfect?
The acrylic fumes intruding my air hint at their wastefulness. I spot markings on a few who have taken voluntary sterilisation treatment. A worthy act for the greater good. Not one of generosity on their part but pure profit motivation. All to fuel their wistful lower pleasures. Sleeping, carnal creatures sundered from the righteous progress of mankind. Lovers of folk traditions. Relics of the past, the state calls them detritus in the future that was Now.
“Nothing to give,” I step past more of them, regretting my charity. The feeling like a throwback to savagery. The huddled figures dangerous in the shadows. Waiting for me to slow down, to become distracted. My own primitive feelings may be my undoing. What if I am found out as an abetter? Called in for questioning. I rush to cancel the previous transaction but the credits are gone.
On the steps of the old neo-classical building, one of the vagrants has the gall to approach me. Too close, his rancorous musk aggravating, Scowling, shoving past. I do not dignify him with vocal recognition.
Past the jungle of canvas and refuse, I cleanse myself with a body-spray steriliser. Then I continue on the path of my flourishing, to my vocation space.
Slowing my hurried walk outside the campus gate, I uncover my head. The environment now rarefied so respirators are unnecessary. Despite the torrential rain, I let the Supervisor know me whole, unmasked. There is no light emanating from the sensors. Yet, the subtle warmth of infrared measures and profiles my essence. Body, motion, eyes, and as I place my hand on the gate’s pad, my very biology exposed and sequenced.
My identity is known and it is satisfied. A chronicle of my past day’s activity spirals down the observation pillar in the main lobby. My emittance inspected by a man in a grey single-piece bodysuit. Convinced I am fully interconnected and productive, he waves me on.
Walking past his desk, I pay homage to the slogans and imagery designed for my well-being. The beautiful, rich ultra-definition screens cover every surface. Patriotic appeals to consume interspersed with lifestyle hacks. All designed to trigger our ascension from basic animals. The monitors an artistic rendition of the collective aspirations of our perfect society. Harmony and tolerance.
In the lobby, my partners in the great Knowledge Enterprise express their individuality. Minimalistic designs in matching garments tokenized with post-ironic emblems. The identification of their self-selecting groups echoes in subtle animations projected around them.
I realise I am observing with my eyes alone, having forgotten to turn on my in-vision display. I correct my mistake. Before anyone notices, I hope. Approaching the elevator, the bland space is now enhanced by layers of augmentation. It is a rich panoply of life stretching through virtual worlds. A wholly immersive networked society.
How lonely the past people must’ve been without the interconnectedness of the Now.
Transfixed in front of the holographic visualisations, the pleasure of streaming information enveloping me. Hands deft and expressive through the motion of floating icons.
My vocation is interpreting human emotions. The Voice is at my side, “What prompted you to decide to flag this individual?”
“The client,” I say, “had three previous incidents on record during skill-training. Cross-referenced with debits made to a counselling bot and flights to the Upper Farm Zone. Her parents live there. The probability of an unstable marriage coupled with two biological dependents. In total, a high risk for violation.”
“Thank you,” the Voice says, “this has been useful.”
The Supervisor sees to the flow of the masses through the well-ordered arteries of the city. Its valves release to fill each vestibule and antechamber for its deeper purpose. It orchestrates the life-pulse of the state with a clinician’s artistry. Yet, like a gardener reliant on fertiliser, it relies on me to make its well-adored subjects bloom. Aggregating the data that flows from every pore of humanity, it has one blind spot: the individual. Its emotions veil its decisions in a fog of unpredictability.
Probabilities, the perfect hiding spot for the inflammable and unstable singular organic unit. The Supervisor’s functional limitation is my evolved advantage to sell.
The morning proves rewarding as I spot three cases of psychic exhaustion. Plus, a young woman still in her technical education liable to systemic doubt. Her secret poetry gives her away to me. Smokey metaphors authored in solitude. These I add to the database of illicit verse. The Supervisor is pleased with my productivity.
It is justice that her life path is set to something more appropriate.
We, partners, gather in the covered picnic area for morning exercises. Motivational music attuned to my disposition plays in my ear. The fitness monitor rewards me for my participation in a healthy progressive Now. Afterwards, I cleanse myself with vacuum exfoliants. In the shower unit next to me, Argus, a bullock of a man steps out. He is in the upper rings, beyond analysis and into a synthesis of Accepted Knowledge.
“You are in peak physical condition,” I say to him.
“And you are a credit to our society,” he replies.
The software agent, monitoring checks on my name, tells me there is a ping on my files.
Taking my can of Antitox back to my desk, I resume monitoring the data stream. My first case is a bulky man with a flagrant, high body temperature. He slams the door of his auto and his calendar indicates he is late to a meeting. I flag him and move on.
Next case is a greying woman, behind on taking her assigned re-skill packages. Flagged.
A young boy with potential learning difficulties. A mother with poor personal finance management. An immigrant in the restricted vocation zone.
The data stream slows down to a choppy low-bandwidth crawl. My side-snack, a sixty-second augmentation reel about adventure vacations, is now a frozen still-frame.
Queasy from returning into presence, I am naked without my information feeds. I look around the office, the other partners around me are also unanchored. The woman in the pinstripe suit on the corner desk is looking green. The always-smiling black guy opposite, still grinning but his eyes betray his terror.
There is a warning icon flashing on the systems monitor panel. In the corner wall where the techs have gathered. One of them shouts out a babble of jargon. Unmannered and bashful, the tech hushed by the disapproving looks of the partners. The tech’s brow is sweaty, he concentrates on interacting with the interface in the middle space.
We are all avoiding eye contact. It is the sixth time this week the net has flaked. The techs once again can offer no explanation. Beyond meaningless phrases like “unauthorised device connections.”
The other partners and I are already unimpressed and this may seal their fate. Their lack of professionalism is a blot on our unit’s performance. How are we the Team meant to maximise our utility if we’re reliant on such sub-optimal members?
On low-fidelity textual analysis work, I’m pouring over flagged emails. At least until the techs restore the high resolution. Running an AI training agent, I teach it about valid conversations in the workplace.
Work related, personal, work-related, seditious, crypto conversation.
It’s not as much fun as immersive emotion graphing. It’s made worse by the lack of side-visuals to distract me from the monotony of other people’s conversations. I am reliant on low-grade edutainment audio. My mind aches for something more fluid on the peripheral. The audio at normal speed gets old in a few beats, so I speed it up times 5, then all the way to times 30. The discourse on scientific politics washes over me. Then I take a few Supervisor-approved courses on logical reductionist empiricism.
As the hour closes, I amuse myself by racing through a comedy panel show.
“In less enlightened times,” the celebrity scientist says, “people used to believe in dangerous ideas. Before their gene-lines got snipped, what is now mocked used to be feared.
“Now we are free.”
An outside agency brought in by Supervisor restores the data stream to normal. The local techs are bread-lined. I’m having to rip through the backlog of work packets but my twitch feed doubles in intensity after the break.
Multi-Lifing on a sword and sorcery sim, I’m also taking in some hardcore nerd-casts about functional neurology. Annotating the worthy phrases, I share them on my social stream for the resultant kudos.
“Human freedom is an illusion. It is a subjective phenomenon, indistinct from all other biological conditions. And misunderstood in only one species – us.”
On my break, I compose a monograph about the dangers of vagrancy in the streets. Starting a petition to enact a ‘No Tolerance’ policy, I send it round to the partners.
At the Free Think workshop, partners compliment my “No Vagrant No Tolerance” movement. It is viralling hard.
“You know,” this snot-faced noob called Cassius says, “what would be cool? Let’s do a real-world meetup in front of City Hall. Really, get this into meatspace, you know?”
“Wow,” I say, “that’s really cool.” Emphasising the sarcasm with air quotes, I go on, “Like an old meme. How retro of you.”
“Actually, that sounds creditworthy.” Another partner jumps in, a body sculptor judging by his trim suit.
“Yeah, I would be totally into that.” The chorus of approval turns the tide.
“Sure,” I decide to bandwagon, “there might be something to the idea. Guess as patient zero on this one I better be there.”
Better in on a trend than playing solo offline.
The last hour of vocation time and I’m still nonplussed about my turn in fame. The spotlight grabbing Cassius’s pretentious handle is now all over the stream. Getting interviews with citizen channels.
“Why do you think officials are so ineffective in dealing with the vagrancy crisis?”
“Well, Veronica, too many lamers just sign petitions. They forget that real engagement happens on the street.”
Social justice hip talking crap. I can’t believe this pop politic sloganeering pastiche is currency now. The Voice helps me set up some monitors on him. As a precaution, I set up some counter-surveillance on myself as well.
Partners are always looking to snipe, so I can’t be too careful. The fittest paranoid survives.
Clocking out of campus, I get into an auto heading for midtown. Gorging on a set of drama shorts about gangs of eco-migrants, I chow down with some friends in a street-side noodle stand. We roundtable images from our day and emote tag them.
“This guy,” I tell them, “real noob jockey, just hogs right in with his big snout. Motherfucker, you in my truffles? No courtesy at all.”
“So, what’s the plan?” My friend Monica, a sound tech for a landscape engineering corp, asks me. Her hair’s shifting neon patterns are making me nauseous.
“Simple, let’s hijack the protest,” I explain looking at the others around the table. “They want to make some recycled gesture, let’s give them something truly 8-bit.”
There is agreement and we get memes printed on tees. Make some signs on the sort of packaging the vagrants love so much. Making it a point that no two slogans make any cohesive demand.
In the auto on our way to City Hall, we have a meta-thread about whether we’re inverting or subsuming the protest. I’m punch drunk on the lulz by the time we get out of the auto uptown. All we need now is some legit citizen to buy our trope and that noob’s 15 seconds will be up.
The protest turns ugly as the boards go wild about hijacking it. Some old flash timers are recreating their youthful energies, burning through credits. Coming from out of town. The peace-keepers turn a blind eye. At least whilst the crowd are tagging the vagrants with paint and slime. But soon the crowd is too big, beyond proscribed limits on gatherings.
Water cannons, gas and a phalanx of heavy armoured keepers kettle the crowds. Managing to make it out, I was only on the fringe to begin with, I walk a few blocks out of the curtained enforcement zone. Getting in an auto back to my apartment, my digital agents scoping out the news reports.
The channels are flowing heavy with the news of the riot. The talking heads are circling around like vultures looking for someone to blame. It’s clear there will have to be accountability for the greater good. I’m hoping it’s that noob but I hear on various channels that his father is a well-connected market-maker.
My hopes that his pokey face will come up on my feed disappears when I start getting spammed with chat invites.
“Have you seen it?”
Asked a dozen times before it finally pops up on my feed. My face. Attached to a story about the “No Vagrant No Tolerance” petition. Numb as I turn off my in-vision augmentation and sink back into my ergonomic chair. Cooling drips run down my face from my brow, my palms radiating heat. I close my eyes and the pulsing visuals subsume me.
The Voice activates the loudspeaker of the room.
“You have an urgent voicemail.”
The message signed by the Supervisor. It comes with an attachment.
Subject: Termination of Contract.