Sally walks past the dented steel roller shutters splattered with bad graffiti and misspelled slang terms for genitalia. She never noticed those before, maybe because she was too busy at the time. On her way to the station, Sally likes to play at ‘Fivers’, where every participant is marked by a green halo around the 3P tag hovering over them, or red, if their avatar has been ‘stripped’. Sally’s Public Persona Pseudonym is “sally594_tj”. Every time she sees a player with a cool PPP like ‘angstor’ or ‘wackophobe’ or even just ‘I1u2cme2’ she regrets allowing the AI server to auto-allocate her a 3P name. Some people prefer to display their MAC addresses instead, but Sally has always felt that it is rude to walk around with an unpronounceable name. Not that she cares right now.
She can’t play today, she can’t even see your 3P, her iScap™ is broken, with no response or display. Her entire Virtual World has just stopped…being! At least the default state for the display window is ‘clear’, so she can still see where she’s going. The noise-cancelling headphones also barely work, she can’t hear herself think over the noise of busses passing overhead, and the air blasts lift an unusual quantity of dust, making Sally wonder if something odd is up with that. At least the helmet itself is still intact, Sally feels safe to walk about, besides, the rest of her protective coveralls are still in good shape, if a bit worn and faded.
As she approaches the clump of people waiting at the curb to cross over to the station, Sally notices the drab grey sticks pretending to be trees, lining the boulevard. Her whole day is grey today, and with her Augmented Reality headset dead, she cannot even lift her mood with a few Happy Pepe memes, or listen to the latest advertisongs… It also means she gets no public info alerts, like signposts, route assistance, traffic announcements or cautions displayed directly in front of her, as part of her visual field. Sally is feeling lonely and isolated and lost, and the weather is conspiring with city management to turn the streets into a listless, dank exhibition of rubbish, filth, human excretions and bits of fallen building. “What the hell happened here?” Sally wonders, as she reaches for the activity button on the AR set, a life-long habit is hard to break. “This rubbish was not here yesterday?”
If Sally was not so intent on looking for the most disgusting example of this affront to her sensibilities, she might have missed the bleak hand beckoning from the shadowy ruins of what once must have been the lobby of a rich business concern, but for some reason the entrance was almost completely blocked by rubble and waste. In the shadows behind the beckoning hand, Sally can almost see a sneering, vicious face. With a gasp of shock and the strength of a desperate escapee, Sally is over the road, across the sidewalk and she rushes towards the safety of surrounds she’s familiar with. The chaos, however, continues across the street, Sally has to walk past the station entrance she habitually uses, as it has a large red sign telling her not to enter there. There are, however, seven other doors, and Sally steps through one without a warning sign. A number of people seem to just ignore the signs, though, and Sally feels somehow put-upon.
As Sally enters the vast station building, she feels slightly displaced. Yes, she entered via an unfamiliar front door, but surely that should not deliver her to an entirely different station? She sees no ©PsyScan™® turnstiles, no concession stands displaying their shiny nonsense, no bus waiting at the lift-off pad. There are, however, two burly people in burly uniforms storming down on Sally in a very burly way, and she is thrown to the floor in violent spasms before she can mumble “what the…?”.
By the time she comes to her senses, she’s slumped in a hard plastic chair, with a tiny-faced person of indeterminate gender staring at her with distaste, or is it fear? Sally also notices her headsaver lying on the table; with a cracked visor, and some deep scratch marks, possibly from where she hit the cement floor earlier. The contents of her handbag is strewn about, and Sally can see her 3P/MAC addresses scribbled onto her helmet. It is obvious that the helmet is as much of a target for hatred as is Sally herself, as if the UniForm in front of her cannot decide who the criminal is, and someone or something has to be arrested. This is the moment Sally realises: she has been arrested!
“Safe hat broken.” Sally is surprised at the squeaky voice coming out of the block of uniformed flesh in front of her. She has heard of microcephalics working for UniForm, but surely they don’t use them to interrogate people, do they? They are little more than voice-programmable muscle with enough sense not to poop in their shoes, but them doing actual policing? Sally always thought they were purpose-bred to baggify battle ’droids, the practice of seating a pseudo-conscious meatbag inside machines that “are not allowed” to make autonomous life-and-death decisions. It’s a legalistic thing…
A drawling, distorted voice from an unseen speaker suddenly demands answers of Sally. On the third try, there’s apparently enough agitation for the voice to have meaningful inflection, and Sally finally understands somebody wants to know why her headset is inoperative. All she can tell them, is that the screen would not switch on this morning. No, resetting did not help. No, the battery monitor on the intelliSafe™ helmet manager showed full charge, she had it recharged just last month. Yes, she can produce receipts. No, she has never been selected by a crime predilection scanner. No, she saw no sign preventing her entry on the door in question. Sally wonders silently about that hand beckoning from the ruins.
She spends the next thirty minutes repeatedly denying sabotage, sinister motives and obtaining “uncertified tech assistance”, whatever that may or may not mean. By this time Sally’s job has been given to somebody that promises to get to work on time, she’s sure, and all she can think of, is her rent due in less than 48 hours. Thoroughly upset, she finally gathers the crimwill to complain about her being interrogated like a criminal. The questioning suddenly stops when she complains about losing her job. The entire cell turns dead quiet, and she can hear her own breathing over that of the wheezing microphal.
Now, Sally has to worry about her outburst, already regretting pitting her personal will against the criminal justice system. Are they discussing her punishment now, somewhere behind those blank, featureless walls, with no door or window or even just a propaganda poster to alleviate the sense of disconnect she feels? Sally has never seen a wall in any public space that does not have at least one graphic reminder of her privileges and duties as the freest citizen in the world.
Just then a decidedly feminine UniForm steps in through a door no-one would ever guess exists until it opens. The officer chucks some sort of catalogue at Sally, a flat, heavy, window-like thing somewhat cold to the touch. Unfamiliar with an actual physical touch-screen, Sally spends the next few minutes discussing media accessories and custom colours for headsets, all the while assisted, encouraged, no, goaded, by the glamourous doll in a most flattering cut of UniForm uniform. Sally had never been blessed with personal attention lavished upon her dreary self by one of the Pretty People, and she feels herself obliged to ooh and ah enthusiastically at features, and promises of comfort, style and extended view fields. In the spirit of shopping for fashion accessories, Sally imagines herself the new owner of a most marvellous headset, inlaid with shiny crystals and reflective decals, custom padded and special-featured, the likes of which she could never afford herself. Suddenly, the glamourous officer jumps up, wiggles itself over to the door, and disappears. Sally feels uneasy about the door, which also disappears.
A noise behind Sally announces the arrival of two familiar UniForms, flanking what must be a lawyer-type and a nurse-type, both leering at Sally in a most professional manner. The lawyer shoves a clipboard at Sally and demands a signature. The nurse, however, pokes a sore finger at Sally’s ribs, rubs a thumb over her temple, and grabs an arm for some closer inspection.
“There is no permanent damage.” She says in a dry voice, but her eyes bore into Sally’s uncomfortably.
The lawyer type shoves the stack of papers at Sally again: “It is for your new headset.”
Sally has bought headsets before, the P3/MAC relationship contract is one page long, and mostly pre-filled. What they present her with, is a stack of papers requiring several signatures. With her very recent descent into crimwill still in mind, Sally wants to sign everything and just be let go.
The shyster looks Sally up and down. “It’s hard to say if the damage on your Coverups™ are the fault of…”
“She was looking for it…” one of the UniForms interrupts, but the lawyer cuts him off with a sharp look. Sally is starting to wonder what is going on here, and the ‘Form presses on: “But she trespassed…” at which point the second ‘Form, a staid-looking man that has not uttered any sound at all, seemed to gather his colleagues as one and swept them through yet another door Sally never noticed. Her latest working hypothesis is that every one of the dull pink panels on the wall is actually a door, and she wonders very little further about it, because she notices the pile of papers on the table, and picks it up. “They not want you charge.”
Sally almost jumps out of her skin. She has totally forgotten about the microcephalic cop. He looks at her with a strange mixture of hatred and conspiracy, or is it fear and urgency? Without moving so much as an eyelash, the microphal (the Gates Foundation prosecutes all references to “Microsofalic Meatbag Inside” as hate speech) urges Sally to pick up the papers while he stares at one point on the wall behind her. After years of working as a news homogenisation tech, Sally can read faster than the text-to-voice apps that most people use for reading. By the time the lawyer returns, Sally knew the gist and purpose of three documents. The lawyer sits down, this time with no-one but Mz. Glamourpuss in the perfect uniform, and the perfect makeup, and the perfect little scam to bankrupt Sally for the price of an Audiovisual device she does not need and cannot afford. Sally does not smile back at her. The lawyer starts:
“Apologies for that little delay, er… miz?” Sally knows she’s not that ugly, and she likes the fellow even less for it. But she has bigger fish to fry:
“I was assaulted! I am hurt, my headset is damaged…” she points at the scrapes and the bruises “and now you are trying to sell me a new one, and you expect me to sign waivers and admissions without council?” Sally is only getting worked up now. “And let us not forget, you arrest me, lock me up, and interrogate me…”
“You trespassed on restricted territory, you are not transmitting your identity, not even a 3P, and you have failed to appraise any police force of your intentions.” the lawyer type manages to look quite sympathetic while he berates Sally.
“What intentions?” Sally screeches.
The lawyer calmly explains that Sally walked into a restricted entrance by mistake. The sign to warn the public temporarily malfunctioned. She is gently but pointedly reminded how much machinery fails these days. The forms before her are the MAC contract, basically pre-filled, and there is a non-disclosure agreement, about the ‘unfortunate incident’. There is a contract that awards Sally a new safety helmet with augmented reality attachment, a new Coverups™ and lastly, there is an official-looking notice to Sally’s employer, apparently already delivered, explaining that Sally was kept busy on Matters of Import, authority to pay missed wages herewith granted, and she has immunity from being dis-employed for six months. Sally’s contract was running out on Friday, so she shuts up and signs everything.
Before Sally has time to ask what happens next, a new, boxed headset is unceremoniously shoved into her arms, and she is ushered out the door. By the time the thing boots up, with all her data intact, Sally has inspected every flashy crystal and bobbit on her beautiful new safety helmet. Now what kind of luck was that! Her arm feels a bit bruised, though, so she spends some time telling herself what she will do to the next pig that storms down on her with clubs and tazers… Sally wanders off to the nearest station, fully appreciating the wider, crisper view, the more-lifelike-than-life sound, the snug fit and luxurious fur chinstrap. She never looks back once. It may have been informative. She makes her way to the nearest station, crisply directed by her helpful new friend, er, head protection device with reality augmentation and cool decals. She’ll sell the garish protective suit to one of her more fashionable colleagues.
After she has finally passed enough cameras, and got ogled at by the required number of bored uniforms, and got sniffed at by a series of electric detectors and transducer things, Sally at last settles into the cramped cabin of the Hoverlyft®™. She’s lucky to have a window seat today, it makes the acrophobia almost bearable. As the flying bus approaches the business district, the flight path presents Sally with a panoramic view of the city centre. Around her place of employ, she can spot the three familiar green expanses of the green zones, or parks, as the old stories called them. For the umpteenth time, Sally wonders what it feels like, visiting one of those so-called nature reserves. By the time she sits down at her service terminal, she has completely forgotten about trees and, and …gress, was it? Right now, her earning day has started late, and the rent is due.
Shortly elevenses strike, and she enjoys a small block of food and a greenish juice that she finds particularly relaxing. She sees the beckoning hand only once more that day, during one of those ‘statutory obligation to trade’ jobs, where she has to do an edit on behalf of a corporation, as part of the government’s duty to expend a percentage of public funds in the interests of the business sector. Today’s little favour is to replace an actor’s face with that of an Excellency’s in a video of two men having an orgy in an orphanage. The computer does everything, really, but it takes a human eye to adjust for small things. While the computer processes frame after frame, Sally catches short glimpses of the ‘action’, and involuntarily she closes her eyes, only to see that pale hand beckoning. It had no nails…
On her way home that afternoon, Sally decides to walk on the right side of the street, away from that ghostly apparition. As she exits the station, she takes a quick sidelong glance across to the ruins she saw this morning. Sally’s spirit is lifted, she feels part of a bigger picture, she knows the world is okay, because that whole mess got cleared up during the day. Even the poor graffiti has been scrubbed off, it seems. She still sticks to this side of the boulevard, though. It is only once she has closed her apartment door behind herself, that she sees that hand again, behind her eyelids, when her eyes closes against the shock of seeing her entire selection of Morning Medication lying on the edge of her dresser, untaken in her occupation with the broken headset this morning. That explains the careless mistake she made this morning, not taking your pills really is bad for you! Just to be sure, she shoves all seven pills down her throat with the help of a stiff shot of paraffin-like gin. Then she pours another stiff one to drown her evening medication.
An hour later, Sally is not feeling well at all. She suspects taking eleven pills in one go was probably not so clever, but she forgot this morning, and they can test you for it, she’s heard stories of people who were preemed by a ©PsyScan™® or the ones reported by concerned associates, afraid of being infected by someone with poor medicinal discipline. The fine for dysmedication is ridiculously high, and most transgressors end up in Service in lieu of payment. Sally does not want to go do Service, and the thought of it makes her spine chill. This cannot be natural, and she decides to bring her symptoms to the attention of a licenced medical care provider. As she thinks about her report, Sally can feel a sudden, empty, bloated, floating heaviness in her tummy.
“What the gop is happening to me?” Sally wonders aloud, and reaches for the emergency call button on her home screen. As the computer-generated health care assistant answers, Sally becomes oddly transfixed by the automaton before her. For the first time, it seems, Sally looks at the avatar with professional eyes, sees the mechanistic movements, the stilted speech of a soulless motherboard, the total lack of life in the eyes… she hastily issues a fault reset, citing a stumble while operating her AR connectivity device. Unbeknown to Sally, her story is confirmed as probable; the records show she was issued a new model of AR just this morning. Also, a record is updated to show that citizen 5ef027b91e:52f6a5d48 has stumbled in her own abode. This activates a home safety inspection list upgrade as well as a medical insurance red flag. For Sally, it leaves a metallic taste in her mouth, a stomach full of leaden butterflies and the odd suspicion that if she closes her eyes now, she will see a bleak hand beckoning from the shadows of a war zone.
When Sally wakes up again, her mouth is dry, her skin clammy, and her head is throbbing like a cartoon elephant stomping cockroaches. Everything normal, then. She immediately takes her morning medication, gulping it down with orange-flavoured coffee and a slab of procake. For one moment, Sally wonders if orange has always tasted like this, did it not maybe taste more like purple? Or green. What did purple used to taste like, then, you know, in the old days when… Sally actually feels all the discomfort leaving her body as her morning medication kicks in. She leaves her apartment a content, happy-ish, vibrantly energised citizen eager to get to her place of employ.
On her way to the station, Sally looks at the place where the filth was lying the day before. Everything has been cleaned up, thank goodness, and there is no beckoning hand in the well-lit foyer of that building. She’s never been in there, Sally thinks. Not that she would have occasion to visit, what is that? Jones, Jones and Johnssonson Civil Projects, whatever it is they do. Sally is aware that people are involved in many of the functions she takes for granted. Like Civil Projects, certainly that must be important, what with a big building like that, and look, suddenly there are lots of people going in and out. On a whim, Sally decides to go see, but as she approaches, she notices a line of turnstiles, right inside the entrance, where stout-looking people in very official garb are supervising the presentation of credentials. No Sallies in there, thank you and good bye!
As Sally crosses the street towards the station, she feels the new headset rubbing in unfamiliar places, and as she adjusts the band, she manages to see past the limit of the AR screen, somebody has been throwing rubbish around again! As the throng rushes Sally towards the array of ©PsyScan™® turnstiles she manages to refit the headset, and forgets about everything not related to surviving another commute. As she nears her office building, she again notices the green zones, and in a whisper she promises herself to go visit one, one of these days.
As Sally’s hoverbus nears the office, she receives a call from the human relations officer, a superbly manicured and perfectly made up computer-generated screen picture of a talking human-oid.
“…the nature of your task, we can no longer…” is about as far as Sally allows the machine to pontificate, before she reminds it of her six-months contract. It turns out they’re perfectly willing to pay Sally her full hourly fee for the whole six months, but would she please just stay away? “…and remember the NDA you signed, mis..tzz? Sally nearly hits another passenger when she angrily swipes the call to a close.
Her planned stop coming up, Sally notices again the three green areas in the bleak grey-white-and-neon of the city. She has always wanted to go see those places, soon as she has time. Possibly still euphoric, probably in a state of continued shock, Sally absent-mindedly pays her ticket to the station nearest the nature reserve. She swings her handbag as she gets off the bus, and follows the crisper, clearer directions projected upon the vision field of her safety cap’s visor.
Sally was still struggling with her inner doubt, when she realised she actually is walking, walking that-away, as the old people used to say, towards the green oasis she sees from the Hoverlyft®™ on every morning commute. Sally made it more than half way to the park, before she was hit hard over the head and had all her belongings removed, or so the health care unit explained when she woke up in hospital. This makes Sally feel a lot better, a robot is looking after her, if she was seriously hurt, there would have been a human around, surely? With a start, Sally jumps straight up out of bed, surveys the dirty room around that is obviously not a hospital, and crashes to the floor as the light-headedness catch up with her sudden rise from the camp stretcher.
“She still out?”
“Like how! The poor thing is lucky to be alive.” A rough finger pulls at Sally’s eyelid. “Or not…”
“We found her stuff. Brand new headclam, she must have money.”
“Nah! Rich people don’t wear old outskins like these. Besides, she was walking, they say, walking!”
“Can’t be, there’s nothing there to walk to.” The new voice belongs to a sour-looking biddy with an old-fashion bang-gun strapped to her waist. “She was bait!” With this the room erupts in a roar of indignation. You can actually hear the torches being lit and the pitchforks sharpened. To Sally of course, it would be the sound of tazers being switched on.
“I was on my way to the nature reserve.” The crowd of scarecrows turn as one, mental pitchforks at the ready, staring at Sally where she leans against what must once have been a doorway. All that is left of it now, she sees, is a square hole in a wall, and on the one side a broad plank that somehow swings around to close the hole. No door, nothing!
“Grab her!” Sally hears, before a pair of hands grab her under the armpits just before she hits the floor.
“The poor thing is still weak, give her air…”
“She needs water!”
“She needs food, look how skinny the poor gal is…”
“I need someone to tell me where I am. Who are you? What is going…” Sally tries to get up on her elbows, eventually succeeds, and slowly the faces around her swim into focus. In a far corner, a small figure is busy drooling over her brand new helmet. The little …man? Old woma…”Is that a child?” screams Sally, eyes wild with fear. “It’s a baby!” she squirms backward “They carry viruses!” Sally is halfway up a wall before laughter bursts out.
“So, its true, then?” a young man smiles at her. “You folk really don’t breed?”
Sally has heard of breeding before. She had occasion to remove gratuitous texts and records making reference to that barbaric practice. Imagine a man grabbing a woman, then physically mangle her until she lays an egg in her own uterus! Sally shivers. ”So where does she think babies come from?” a curious voice asks from the rear, which, upon inspection, turns out to be a child no older than seven.
That is when Sally realises: these dirty people have somehow broken into the population centre, stolen some human zygotes, which they are keeping as… pets? Mad with fear, Sally summons the courage to push away the nearest hands, and she stumbles out the hole in the wall, down a long, dark passage, towards the open hole at the end, where she can see bright sunlight, people passing by, life!
As sally stumbles to the door, she stops in shock. They have abducted her to a war zone! The whole place is a mess! She carefully steps past broken concrete and glass, avoids a sharp metal spike and manages to reach the sidewalk. She turns around, and realises she is standing in front of that same bombed-out building she saw yesterday morning, complete with graffiti and sagging doors. In the shadows, just beyond the entrance, a bleak face is looking at her, pale fingers without nail polish holding her helmet.
“Here” the shrill voice floats over “don’t forget your headclam!” and she throws the safety helmet clear across the rubble, and Sally barely catches it. “Better put it on, before you get wise” the voice advises, and with a last wave of the bleak hand, the voice draws back into the dark. For a moment, Sally just stands there. Eventually, absent-mindedly, she puts on her iScap™, automatically reaches for the controls. The punishment for being in public without a safety helmet is severe, and Sally remembers all too well that it better be in good working condition, or get arrested anyway. Sally will never take her ‘scap off in public again, that’s for sure.
As Sally’s Augmented Reality projector boots up, she sees one last glimpse of that bombed-out building, before it dissolves into Jones, Jones and Johnssonson Civil Projects, a beautiful office complex, with armed guards outside to keep the Sallies out. Looking around her, Sally sees not one sign of decay, not one piece of filth. She sees green trees lining a glittering boulevard, with a stream of afternoon commuters coming and going through her favourite station door that her iScap™ clearly marks as “Enter Here”.
Sally is home again.