I woke up on time this morning, hitting the alarm on the first ring. I had slept OK that night according to my fitness tracker. I didn’t need it to tell me I normally slept badly, but the social workers wouldn’t let you get healthcare under the limited government programs if you didn’t wear it.

I stared at my phone on the charger for a while. The device was a cheap, minimal unit. I could say it was environmentally friendly for being recycled or low energy usage. In reality, I wanted as little tracking as possible. I couldn’t afford more points against me. It was in sleep mode, but it would always get feedback from the network because state functions had priority.

I went into the bathroom. I drank a glass of water, stymying my appetite and making my health metrics look better. I took a shower. It was warm, and it was too long for the social good. I could hear the phone ding in that officious tone. Minus a point for wasting energy and water. I turned off the water, debating heavily putting the health tracker back on. I needed it, I decided, because I might not live without it. Another passive aggressive mob attack could leave you with broken ribs, and no one would even treat it if you failed to have the approved health profile.

I went to the next room to get breakfast. My apartment was Spartan. That was a modern aesthetic, but my case was because I had to sell everything to pay the fines a few years ago. I’d barely avoided the rehabilitation hospitals where it was 50-50 you’d be euthanized. Or the work camps where you might live years but always died there.

Breakfast for me was private, since I lived alone. That was rare in a world that emphasized social sharing of everything. I’d liquidated my savings, my retirement accounts, almost everything to pay the fines … taxes… whatever the modern verbiage for the fees was. I’d managed to keep the apartment on a life lease, but I had to pay a modest monthly fee now to keep it. It was mine in name only, no, spirit only.  The rationed high protein cereal was mediocre at best. Today wasn’t one of its better days.

I started my laundry and dishes in the cheap old appliances, everything set to eco-mode though they could do better. I started to sweep the floors before dusting. Cleanliness next to godliness. That’s a phrase no one used anymore. I continued cleaning, every inch of the apartment intimately familiar. I didn’t think there were any monitoring sensors in here, but I still swept while I swept and dusted. The phone dinged that theoretically happy ding – the IoT reported my resource usage to the utility, that to the state, and now back to me. Maybe a point for environmentally friendly choices.

I wanted to pick up the phone. I wanted to connect with my friends, such as they were. I didn’t want to read the promoted headlines to promote the social good. It was obvious when people shared social media updates and government promos to get points themselves. I’d sworn I had to be in bad shape before I’d do that.

I needed to earn money to pay the rental fees, because I didn’t want to risk another fine sucking up all my cash. Debit dollars, really, since my precious hidden cash hoard was nearly illegal. I picked up the phone and checked the job boards. Given my low score, all the good paying and pleasant jobs were not available to me, though I could see what I could do if I got my score up a few points. Twit about these things, and there’s no network fee or messaging tax and you could qualify for… I chose some dog walking assignments. They were exercise, and they’d give me an excuse to be near the farmer’s market.

I walked to the first dog walking assignment and got to work. I was careful to scoop the poop, be friendly to everyone, and be extra kind to the animals. Just my luck, no social worker gave me extra points for the observed good behavior. They tended not to help out people like me, considering tolerating our existence in freedom and efforts to “socialize” sufficient kindness.

I accepted payment via the apps as required. I wished someone would throw in a tip of some kind, any kind. Extra gloves, a sliver of soap, pennies … not even an extra positive review. It is as if they considered my employment charity enough.

I went toward the old folk’s home and helped the recyclers out. I wasn’t doing dead bodies or anything today, just sorting through possessions and taking out trash. I was always on the lookout for valuables, though I could only rarely turn them in for points in recycling. That was one benefit of living alone – I might get away with that sometimes. A PC officer saw me sorting through old, ratty clothes for the plastic versus metal versus biodegradable materials. It was free labor that made life easier for the civil servants. I sorted through the urine and poop stained blankets for them, and I received a mere point for it. I smiled generously. I couldn’t risk her filing a bad report against me. At least I was able to get a free pair of work gloves out of that work, worn to the cleaning station and then beyond, stowed in my bag. Given my work, no one would question me carrying them.

It was at least 11 AM. The farmer’s market would be gearing up for lunchtime crowds. I started to wander, looking for the old Mexican woman who proudly told you rationing saved her from diabetes but still secretly appreciated good food. I had to pay her a premium for her home-grown spices, but because it was a private market item, there wasn’t a strict price point. She charged a premium, and she sometimes threw in contraband candies in with the spices.

I bought a mixture of cheap salad greens and watery tomatoes from a wastewater recycler’s stand. They didn’t make you sick as often as you thought they would. More important, it was a good thing to be seen buying, and I could hide the contraband inside them.

I started wandering again. Desperate for an excuse to stay, I picked up more of the nasty ration cereal. I finally found her in her new location. I didn’t look around for a political officer or social worker, knowing that was a warning sign to them. I assumed she was aware of camera locations or else wouldn’t be in this spot. I talked socially with her, asking the types of questions someone like me was allowed to ask.  I asked about Mexican cinnamon. She quoted a price. My only options were yes and no. I turned on my phone, checked my dog walking payments, and after a moment’s hesitation, I said yes. I processed the payment. She quickly gave me a bag of loose cinnamon tasting powder, several sweet candies wrapped in paper inside it. I put that in the middle of my carry bag.

To walk straight out of a farmer’s market as if you wanted to escape was another red flag. Instead, I stopped at a water bottle refilling station near the edge of the farmer’s market. I drank deeply, barely glancing around through squinted eyes. I let others have their turn, and then I refilled the bottle.  I slowly wandered over to a fountain just past one of the PC police. They were there ostensibly to stop theft, check purchases for items bought without paying sales tax, another type of theft, and stop contraband.

I sat down on the ledge of the water fountain. I was hungry but not hungry enough to eat ration cereal. A small group came over and sat down beside me. Around me. That programed pro-social behavior, never let anyone be excluded, you have to be part of a group and go with the group, it is for the best for all of us. I decided the only safe solution was to ask a few basic questions and let them talk. That’s pro-social behavior, me listening to everyone. They talked about restaurants, cafes, all the fun activity and event places I couldn’t visit.

Then came the question I dreaded. “Do you want to come to lunch with us?” I couldn’t say no. I replied, “I don’t really have the money for the places you seem to want to visit.” One of them said, “If you need a dollar or ten, I’ll gift it.” Another laughed, “And we always hope you’ll pay the favor forward.”

I said, “I’d love to, though I don’t know if my review would help you.” Their expressions changed in that moment, some better at faking polite smiles than others. One of the pro-socials intentionally scans local signals. “You’re not coming up on reports.”

“I’m saving power. I can’t afford much.”

Another one challenged me, “How low did you go? What did you do?”

I smiled politely, ever aware that what cameras and sensors didn’t report could be reported by people. “If I talk about it, is that a positive or negative contribution to the conversation?”

“You’re right,” one of the kids said. “You shouldn’t tell us about it in case you’re a bad influence.” A different one remarked, “Yeah, this isn’t a public healing session.” Huff. “I almost thought you were good.” A lot of thoughts crowded my mind, but I said none of them. “Thank you for inviting me,” I said.  They left me for lunch, and I moved on toward home. This was as natural a break as any.

I made it home a little after noon. I ate my salad and had one of the precious candies for dessert. I checked my account balances, and my Sesame Credit score was prominently shown. None of the kids had given me a bad report, but I wasn’t any better off now than when I’d started the day.

I finally dared to check personal messages. Marya sent a long, government approved message. Was she in a public denunciation session, euphemistically called a healing session, and I’d made it on her list of people to warn? Or was she in a rehab center and this was considered part of her personal improvement plan? Or was she trying to get her score up to avoid some fine? I didn’t dare ask. Someone forwarded me a news report on Chi being arrested. I believed that. While the report itself was politically prejudiced, the fact was he was still active and thus logically a target for arrest.

Marshall sent a punny response to a political story he forwarded, hoping that was enough to confuse the AIs behind the oppressive algorithm. It wasn’t; that is why he forwarded three more pro-social Twits to compensate.

I longed for a beer, an energy drink, something to make me feel better. Nearly everything I want is prohibited because my lifestyle has been so far away from what the elites deem best for us. If I want anything, I have to buy it. I glanced at the account balance again. I really need more financial margin. I checked the job listings again.

A high paying job showed up, one that only veterans like me would believe. A suicide cleanup. I took it and started walking, gloves and extra rags in hand. They needed fast turnaround, and I needed the money.

I arrived to an empty apartment and showed my ID to the logger on the door. It let me in. Recycling had obviously done a number on this place, so I couldn’t salvage anything here. Then again, suicide by gun would guarantee they’d come out in force and make sure nothing got into the wrong hands. All that was left to be cleaned up was the gore on the floor and walls plus the recyclers’ dirty footprints. I started cleaning the mess. I could hear the sensor network tracking my actions, the little whirs of the nearly silent cameras. I didn’t even check floorboards or cabinets. That would be too suspicious. It was thorough searches like that and the precious few things I’d saved that had gotten me in trouble previously, though they didn’t know what I still had.

I was finishing up with the gore on the wall when I heard the footsteps. A political officer or social worker? A curious neighbor? No, based on the accompanying luggage, it was the new resident. “You’re supposed to be done by now.” They were miffed, at a minimum.

“Health is our most precious resource. I wanted to make certain it was safe and clean for you.”

I walked up to the kitchen to rinse out the rags and wash my hands. I turned on the faucet.  “Don’t waste my water.”

“I just scrubbed the brains and blood of the prior resident off the floor and walls. I exceeded government standards –”, said for the sake of the AI listening device that was built into the doorway monitor.

“You’re wasting my time and my water. I got the apartment, that’s on my allotment.”

I was more than miffed but remained outwardly calm.  I filled my water bottle. “Water is life, and I just cleaned up after an unplanned departure –”

“Get out.”

I squeezed out the rags and put them in my bag as I walked out the door, careful not to get any drips on the floor. That could be captured in images and video and used against you in a review.

When I got home, I cleaned the gloves and my clothes thoroughly. Given the nasty work, there was no tight limit on water and soap usage; that much they understood, but it was more for public health than my desire to be clean.

I ate dinner mechanically, tempted to grab another candy. When the phone dinged ominously, the temptation was greater. I forced myself to see what the offense was. The ungrateful new resident had cited attitude and slow work as a strike against you. The government had not lowered the Sesame Credit USA score. That was good, since a lower score would up the rent and utilities and I had less money.

It seemed insane to have once been concerned about a FICO score… I almost laughed. Then I checked my phone balance to see what the pay rate had been. I didn’t expect a tip. Then again, I didn’t expect a debit. Instead, they simply took half the pay rate as a social fee. I’d made half what I expected for wiping a dead man’s brains off the wall.

I was tempted to throw the phone against the wall, but I couldn’t afford a replacement. If I lacked that digital umbilical cord, the state would send PC officers, social workers or both to round me up citing whatever excuse they thought necessary. I gently put the phone down.

I needed a pick me up. I needed hope, love, connection, all the things this micromanaging overbearingly maternal dystopia didn’t provide those who didn’t live by the ever-more-restrictive rules.

I started to clean the apartment again. No obvious bugs or monitoring devices. I dusted and pulled the precious printed works out of their hiding place. I needed this, more than anything else. I read the religious pieces that you couldn’t say in public unless it was the last public thing you’d ever say barring a denouncement of it prior to execution. Excuse me, salvaging. I left the political pamphlets alone, the old printed works being the last truly secret way to get around pervasive monitoring and control of digital communications. I didn’t need my heart rate up, and I didn’t have an activity like cleaning to hide it.

I can pay this month’s rent. I can pay the next month, probably. I can hold on a little while longer. As long as someone does, as long as someone remembers, it isn’t all lost.

I put it all away and got ready for bed. It was so tempted to read until I went to sleep, but you never knew when they might do a search for contraband. But if they ever do drop the score low enough, the first thing I would do is distribute it in all the myriad ways it will show up at random before they take me away.

I lay down in bed, the words of the old prayer the Lord I pray my soul to take echoing in my head.

 

THE END

 

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Photo by FirmBee (Pixabay)

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