The government of U-City popped up online live and direct to everyone, pausing all their lives no matter what they’d been doing, why or where they’d been doing it. ‘Everyone’ meant everyone with biotech inplants or, in other words, every living human being though some, the data rich, were much better connected than others. The real others, though, by dint of not having inplants, were not human, or at least not the same species of human. Among the citizenry, across the many cultures and appropriations of U-City, these others went by various disdainful or downright disgusting names, most often those of extinct mammalian scourges and parasites: lice, maggots, leeches, tapeworms… If they were ever referred to officially by government or any wing of the corporations, which was seldom, they were known with skewering accuracy as ‘the disconnected’.
The government of U-City was a guy named Charlie, a former cold-caller with an obscure bionic limb company, ImpossiBod Four Point Zero.
“Hi y’all,” Charlie greeted the world, ‘sorry to patch in on y’all and all, but some heavy shit is going to go down unless we all get our crap together to scoop that poop!”
Simultaneously translated into every known language and dialect, spoken or embodied, everyone was compelled to hear this, there was no blocking, no mute, no logging out. The government had preceded the announcement with a wake-up call so shatteringly loud, alarmingly pitched and coruscating that, as Allan Exit explained it to Riga, in an unwittingly unkind turn of phrase, “it could awaken the dead.” In fact, only the dead, the comatose and, if the rumours were true, the shades could have avoided it. The street-slang term ‘shades’ covered criminal and terrorist elements who could allegedly hack their way beyond the reach of the Ubiquitous Web, which was ubiquitously known as the U-Web. Shades haunted the internet via SinWeb, shorthand for the Sinistrous Web. Therein they could make themselves deaf and silent, invisible and untouchable, at least to technology that wasn’t specifically targeted to track, trace and trap them, technology that they were always already locked in mortal digital combat with.
According to accepted wisdom, the algorithms had chosen Charlie as the government because he held the majority opinion about almost everything almost all of the time. He had succeeded Marjorie who, whether by coincidence or no, had been a kissing cousin. When Marjorie’s time had come, when she was still just a young woman of not quite two hundred years of age, people were so shocked that many community share sites overloaded and went down, albeit briefly: an extremely rare phenomenon. Some people even went so far as to question the algorithms and demanded a rationale. There were unprecedented rumblings of discontent, all duly gathered as future data for the algorithms, “naturally”. But Marjorie’s funeral had been the grandest multimedia event anyone could remember. Everyone wept and loved every second of it, wallowing in an exquisitely curated and choreographed soft-focus and Saccharin grief, and forgetting to be quizzical let alone angry. Whilst in office, Marjorie had done U-City proud, presiding over the quelling of rebellions, the stemming of psychological pandemics and increasing the Gross Data Product, the latter achieved via ditching all but a lingering notion of private data in law and wholly deregulating the velocity of data flow.
The icing on the political cake was that Marjorie also had a great ass, which made her the most searched celebrity CGI porno link by middle-aged men of all races, plus she erotically attracted a ratings boosting percentile of women. Notably, her salacious status survived her passing and Marjorie’s avatar was a very busy body indeed.
Charlie, by contrast, was surely no-one’s fantasy, and his was a spectacularly unspectacular government. It was controversial selecting successive white presidents, let alone members of the same family but, hey, the ways of the algorithms were as mysterious as they were incontrovertible. Charlie’s appeal was as the everyman, your affable brother, your bumbling centrist dad, your Dutch uncle, your slacker husband, your drinking buddy: a good ol’ boy; but a sho’nuff bad cat too, cos Charlie weren’t no racist. Not even a lead-guitar sexist, it seemed, though his Latino first wife had published a damning memoir after he was selected for office. Allegations of chauvinism, objectification of women and even sexual harassment didn’t much damage his largely rock-steady ratings, though, causing mere blips. If Charlie had traded intimate favours for discounts on bionic prosthetics in the past, no one really wanted to know, or at least no one wanted to condemn a guy for just being a guy and doing regular guy type stuff with body parts. And people liked his current wife, a prejudice countering and popularity boosting d-list Sino celebrity, Suyin, who had been runner-up in a second-string reality show. Contestants had competed for a bonanza of enhancements by belittling, bullying, betraying and even bushwhacking each other, all done against the backdrop of volunteering in U-City’s leading – indeed only - children’s hospital. Charlie’s future wife lost out because she’d seemingly been too squeamish to pull the plug on a premature baby’s incubator in order to incriminate her opponent. Dubbed into every language in U-City, her refusal, complete with shrieks of horrified incomprehension and achingly poignant outpourings of exotic maternal feeling, jerked tears from almost every beholding eyes.
Following full gender reassignment, the winner got extra-long mega-model prosthetic legs, breast enhancement to the unsupportable max, along, obviously, with the necessary titanium spine strengthening technology, plus a counter-balancing bouncy butt augmentation, self-polishing nails, labial sculpting, programmatic in-corporeal pubic alopecia, full-body and face tattooing by a leading artist, unlimited piercings for life and an extra sense that allowed her to consciously detect, analyse and respond in-kind to pheromone secretions.
Suyin got Charlie.
After watching her final shaming and ejection from the reality show by the gloating c-list judges, not only had Charlie arranged for an upgrade on all four of Suyin’s limbs, he’d also splashed out to increase her connectivity to the brain frizzling legal limit with a life-time’s supply of the necessary acceptance medication thrown in. Such generosity had evidently made him irresistible to Suyin and they married three days after her hair had grown back. Paradoxically, while Suyin prospered, her reality show nemesis was quickly forgotten and committed a barely reported suicide just hours after having a demonic embryo tattooed on her tongue.
Politically, Charlie’s strongest suit was that he despised the disconnected with a vicious, eviscerating passion.
“Now, we’ve all got mighty used to some goddamned funny weather,” Charlie told the listening world, “a-chopping and a-changing and giving us seven kinds of hell, but there are rumours spreading like wildfire that we’re about to get hit with by something that’ll make the hurricanes, tornados and floods we’ve survived so far look like a school picnic on a summer’s day with synthetic daisies and bluebird drones a’ tweeting by. U-City ain’t nowhere much more’n fifty metres above sea level and a lot of inland neighbourhoods are actually way below that, so I don’t wonder that y’all get freaked by any rumour of flooding.”
Though he tended to the garrulous, Charlie nevertheless had a way with words that conjured images people could appreciate.
“Already,” Charlie continued, “we have folk packing up and fleeing from the plastic coast out west, bumping the hell into each other and fighting over stuff an’ all. Various police forces have even had to smoke a few cats to stop ‘em hitting on exposed families.”
Charlie let his words hang in the air for a moment so people could take them in while watching the simultaneously streamed video clips, machine edited to horrify and excite but not offend. Whether the editing was also designed to mislead was not something the audience conjectured much about.
“Well lookee here, Charlie continued, “I’m online to tell y’all for certain sure that these rumours are bullshit. Yep, I done said the big bad B word on air; had to do it; folks, and sorry an’ all, ma and Reverend Simms back down home. But the algorithms ain’t coming up with any hint of a major extreme weather event in the offing. Repeat: it ain’t gonna happen, people! Now you plastic coasters, y’all go back home right now and have yourselves a beer and a barbecue; you’re as safe as houses. Matter of fact, you’re way safer given some of the jerry built shanties and condemned bomb-sites that some of y’all insist on inhabiting down that-a-way despite the widespread provision of tied social housing by your caring-sharing government in partnership with… But, hey, listen to me, off on my high horse again! I just worry about all you good folks is all.”
Behind Charlie, his words had triggered a promotional video for the conglomerate that implemented the government’s social housing programme. The film was directed by a top arthouse filmmaker, famous for her excoriating visual critiques of elite power. Fully exploiting and so disarming irony, the housing promo featured a development called Little Boxes and a family named Simpson.
“Getting back to the matter in hand,” Charlie continued, “we can all make a bitchin’ guess at where these unfounded rumours of impending meteorological doom sprung up from.” Charlie’s trademark arch look implicated the disconnected with absolutely no need to spell it out.
“Well, they’ve gone too far time, causing real data producing folk to get a’ hurt and killed. In my book, that adds up to terrorism. So stay tuned to the news feeds because some bodies are going to pay a heavy price for that evil. And it ain’t gonna be purdy, I can promise y’all that!”
With military pogroms of the disconnected duly authorised, militia bloodletting tacitly endorsed, individual hate strikes similarly excused and media companies already in a bidding war for the streaming rights to guaranteed mayhem and prime-time-all-the-time viewing, Charlie signed off with a smart military style salute to the irresistibly rousing opening bars of the computer composed U-City anthem before the sponsors’ ads kicked in. Actually, there were only opening bars: the anthem didn’t have a chorus, let alone a grand finale. And, of course, Charlie had never served in the military. At no point in his address had he explained how a group defined by their lack of internet access could promulgate online rumours. He didn’t have to. Real people knew exactly where Charlie was coming from.
“We’ve got another job from the Ministry,” Riga told Allan Exit even as Smooth Eddie drew up back outside Exit Funeral Services, “old dude, standard priority, no real rush.”
“But I haven’t reported in on Mister Green yet,” Allan Exit objected, simultaneously liking without thinking an online post expressing approval of Charlie’s don’t panic, persecute speech. Thumbs up.
“I guess they’ve ticked that one off.”
“I’ll have to inform them of today’s – er - setback,” Allan Exit said, massaging her temples. Absently noting the identity of an incoming call, she instantly declined it.
“I’ve already requested access to more data on the deceased.”
“We’re home courtesy of Novashock, your favourite site for streaming body horror, slasher and snuff,” Smooth Edie reported, name-checking one of the hearse’s lease sponsors.
“I wish I could snuff you,” Riga growled.
“You’re welcome!” Smooth Eddie piped cheerily.
“What Cousin Charlie said about the plastic west coast,” Allan Exit asked, deploying the nickname everyone used for the government, “where has our missing cadaver gone to the seaside?”
“Blog doesn’t say,” Riga reported, scrolling on her wrist device, “but from around these parts, at this time of year, with atmospheric pollution patterns, the wind direction and residual radioactive fallout, who in their right mind would go east?”
“At this point I wouldn’t like to bet that Mister Green R.I.P. is anything like in his right mind,” Allan Exit said. “What sane man skips out on his own funeral?”
“I know one sane woman who tried pretty damned hard,” Riga sniffed.
“There was a glitch,” Allan Exit explained for the umpteenth time, “I couldn’t know that you were in remission.”
“A stay of execution.”
“You know I hate that terminology.”
“I know you shot me,” Riga said, “no hard feelings. In fact, no feelings at all. Because. I’m. Dead!”
“Your abiding anger is quite understandable,” Allan Exit soothed. “Have you considered going back to counselling?”
“My counsellor is still in hospital, “Riga said, “he’s asked not to see me again.”
“That’s reasonable, I suppose, in the circumstances.”
“PTSD aside,” Riga said, “he actually sent me a thank-you text. With the insurance pay-out they’ve rebuilt him. They have the technology, the capability to make him better than before; better, stronger, faster.”
“Is he going back to work?”
“Sure is. He’s afforded an empathy boosting sense, had it built in along with the physical upgrades. Ground floor office this time too.”
“He should never have advised me to count to ten to keep from losing my temper: maths always drives me crazy!”
“I’m sure he’s taken note.”
“What about my emotional problems, though?”
“Perhaps we should do this new job straight after lunch,” Allan Exit suggested. “Would that make you feel better?”
“Can I watch you eat?” Riga asked.
“If you absolutely must,” Allan Exit conceded because she couldn’t shake her feelings of guilt.
The experience of Riga watching her eat always made her distinctly queasy and usually meant that she had little appetite anyway. Whilst alive, Riga had loved her food, albeit that she ate the same unappetizing crap synthesised from shitty air and, indeed, literal shit that everyone endured. One alternative to bland dietary dissatisfaction involved taste bud modification, which was within the means of only the very few, big-data harvesting execs and the like.
“Chloroplast cell modification can free you from the schlep of a boring mammalian diet,” Smooth Eddie chimed in, “photosynthesise up to ninety percent of the nutrients you need for a longer and healthier life. Let Nutribrite free you from the downtime of mealtimes forever.”
“Thanks,” Allan Exit acknowledged, “but there was a reason all plant life became extinct.”
“I would give my eye teeth to shut this fucker up,” Riga growled menacingly, clenching a massive fist.
“Any damage to the vehicle, including its on-board, will result in corporate police action,” Smooth Eddie intoned. “Go on punk, make my day!”
“It’s just: Go ahead, make my day.” Allan Exit corrected, unable not to intone her exasperation despite herself. “Elsewhere, Harry Callahan says: You've got to ask yourself one question: 'do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?”
“The toaster can’t even quote classic movies right,” Riga sneered, “I wouldn’t soil my hands. Let’s go eat.”
“Ban Appétit!” Smooth Eddie delivered as the undertakers left the hearse to find a café where one of them could eat an unpalatable lunch and the other could watch, mentally salivating.
“Bon, you digital dickhead!”
“You know, Allan Exit said when the hearse was out of sight, “Smooth Eddie might have meant ban, it could be one of the sponsors’ messages?”
“Just a terminological error,” Smooth Eddie sent.
“Out of sight but not out of mind,” Allen Exit murmured, forcibly reminded that she could never be out of digital earshot, never disconnect.
“That clunker pisses me off,” Riga growled, unaware of her boss’ embodied communication with the hearse’s on-board.
“Built to serve and never swerve,” Smooth Eddie sent, “courtesy of D-day Data Services, your communications sponsor for the next seventy-two minutes.”
Following lunch for one at a little Sicilian place that they quite often frequented, Allan Exit and Riga set out to commit the late Mister Joleon Soames. Riga had evidently enjoyed the repast more than her boss. Don Vito’s had produced a decent semblance of gnocchi from block carbohydrate, and she really appreciated the way they coloured, textured and sliced the reprocessed protein to look like salami, albeit a very shocking-pink salami. Though no one working in the catering industry could be anywhere near ancient enough to have seen meat for real, processed or otherwise, making synthesised food resemble its fleshy progenitors was an obsession across all the cultures of U-City. Simulated sausages were particularly popular, whether they be styled after frankfurters, boerewors, merguez or chorizo, though no one had yet been bold enough to market a take on black pudding. The cooks of U-City somehow managed to make the whole range of bangers look different one from the other. And, up to a point, with the odd overly lurid exception, they all looked the part too. Unfortunately, they all tasted much the same, putting the consumer in mind of faeces and fungus. For Allan Exit the best part of the meal, apart from when it was mercifully finished, had been the dietary fibre, vitamin C, manganese and vitamin K, which the café had served in a reasonably palatable smoothie. Although gene editing had significantly reduced people’s daily requirements, everyone still needed supplements, the proportions of which were derived from continuous online diagnosis and fed-back for each individual. Along with her melanin supplement, the smoothie also contained the synthetic bacteria required to digest food and otherwise maintain good health. So, Don Vito’s connected processing technology dispensed a bespoke cocktail for its funeral directing diner.
“Did you notice the Mafia types at the table by the window?” Riga asked as they walked back to the office and Smooth Eddie.
“Moral philosophers,” Allan Exit suppled while checking out the re-mastered old movies newly available for personal online holfactory immersion, “they’ve got a think-tank operation just a couple of blocks from our office.”
“Who needs moral philosophy?” Riga asked absently, somewhat preoccupied by wishing that she could still eat because then she could have farted. She really missed farting.
“We all do,” Allan exit said, unaware that her assistant’s attention had already drifted. Simultaneously as she formed her next sentence she dismissed pirate pop-up ads for an erotic masseur, data credit, a gigolo, x-treme sports betting, erectile dysfunction, and an ap to block pirate pop-up ads. Once again, she declined an incoming call: he was persistent.
“The algorithms can’t do ethical dilemmas except maybe on a strictly quantitative consequentialist paradigm,” she informed Riga, “ten lives are more valuable than nine; ones and zeros.”
“Lost you,” Riga said, “tuned out, gone…” She began to whistle tunelessly.
“Take our job,” Allan Exit said, attempting to reengage her apprentice’s interest, “who decides for us who dies?”
“The Ministry,” Riga said, “algorithms, duh.”
“And how do they decide?”
“Data, of course, great big bloody data!”
“Big bloody data, exactly. Immense sets of data that computers analyse to reveal patterns and trends in our behaviour and how we relate to each other. But why does the analysis result in, say, the death of our Mister Green?”
“I know this,” Riga said, scratching vigorously under one of her breasts, “I saw a podcast about it. Give me a moment… Er… Um… No, it’s gone.”
“Somewhere in programming all the computer algorithms,” Allan Exit explained as she scrolled through reviews of the best all-weather adaptable jackets for this ‘season’, which would likely amount to four seasons in one day once again, “somewhere, someone has made a judgement about what’s best for U-City as a whole, actually mediated through zillions of simple digital decisions: Does Mister Green have a criminal record? One equals no, zero equals yes. Does he have a genetic propensity to develop this, that or the other disease? Is he an activist? Does he have a prosthetic enhancement? Most importantly, does he generate data: how much judged against successive scales, one and zeros, how marketable, and so on and so on almost ad infinitum until the scales tips and the final zero equals death.”
“Seems fair enough,” Riga decided.
“But is it?” Allan Exit pressed. “Is it justice when that the decision is made before he commits murder, before he develops a costly illness, before he takes direct action, because he’s not very active online? Simply because he doesn’t shop enough, maybe?”
“Better safe than sorry, I suppose.”
“But you’re living proof… Sorry, I’ll rephrase that. You’re walking dead proof that the algorithms can make mistakes.”
“Could moral philosophy have saved me?” Riga asked, instantly more attentive.
“Perhaps,” Allan Exit shrugged, embarrassed, “who knows, certainly not me. Anyway, that’s what the moral philosophers’ think-tank does: feeds back data on ethical dilemmas and analyses algorithms for the subjective bias that people almost inevitably programmed in back in the early days before algorithms wrote their own algorithms.”
“Someone didn’t like me,” Riga growled, clenching her fists.
“Don’t take it personally,” Allan Exit advised, “it was more likely a preponderance of innumerable male programmers who didn’t fancy big women.”
“Snivelling little shits!”
“Or just someone who held a grudge against night-club bouncers.”
“I was good at my job,” Riga said proudly, “never hurt anyone. Well not anyone who didn’t deserve it. And I never failed to complete the Actual Bodily Harm Assessment form, ABHA 0805 stroke 67, always using the prescribed company terminology, especially where I did have to throw some bollocksy little bastard out on his pimply arse.”
“Was that the prescribed terminology?”
“Restrain, reprove and/or eject an overly boisterous client,” Riga recited.
“Anyway, we’re just speculating with a couple of random possibilities in a whole sea of potential contributory factors, you see?” Allan Exit tried to explain. “We have no real idea why the algorithms deceased you or indeed why they then changed that decision, albeit a whisker too late.”
“Snot-nosed geek boy programmers with tiny dicks, just wait till I next meet up with one of the fuckers!”
Allan Exit sighed, contemplating the nuances of algorithm logic was evidently not one of Riga’s strong suits. Luckily there was no more time for her to describe the vengeances she planned to extract on sexist programmers and bellicose drunkards because they arrived back at the hearse.
“Let’s focus on the late Mister Soames, shall we,” Allan Exit proposed as she slid into her seat. “Show some respect.”
“Just so long as he doesn’t fuck with us,” Riga warned, “and isn’t a dick.”
Joleon Soames, as it turned out, was the most perfectly organised and accommodating cadaver that Allan Exit could recall. Something of a godsend, as some faith groups would term it, after the morning the undertakers had experienced. As Riga guilelessly put it later: “This mourning sure beat this morning.” Joleon Soames was one of an increasingly rare breed of the deceased who had elected to see in coming. These days, many of the undertakers’ jobs involved taking their clients out by surprise. That way they usually passed painlessly and ignorant of the fact. In that regard, Riga had been a notable exception to the rule on two counts: she had both sensed it coming and, to speak both figuratively and literally, tried exceptionally hard to dodge the bullet.
“Come in, come in,” Joleon Soames greeted them cheerily, opening his Kevlar front door wide, “I’ve been expecting you.”
“Our commiserations,” Allan Exit said, tucking her top hat under her arm and following the deceased inside.
Even with her own top hat off and breathing in, Riga had to crouch and turn sideways to squeeze through the doorway of Joleon Soames’ 3-D printed dome home. The door latch still caught her painfully in the left buttock.
“Bijou, ain’t she?” Joleon Soames beamed. “Or pokey little shithole as we used to say.”
The area where Joleon Soames lived was a war zone. On the way here Smooth Eddie had been obliged to take quite a long diversion to avoid a firefight between rival militias. Whether they be gangs, tribal groupings or sects, Cousin Charlie mostly left the warring parties to it. Unless, that is, the algorithms detected a threat that they calculated meant something significant. At that point, drone strikes were likely to level entire neighbourhoods in an instant. While they raged bloody but insignificant, though, inner city skirmishes made for great public viewing. Bread and circuses was seemingly a concept deeply inscribed into the algorithms. As for the rival combatants, well, it kept them on the street, generating precious primal data.
“Absolutely everything is in order,” an impressed Allan Exit told Joleon Soames when they were all packed into the dome’s central bed sitting room and she had checked through the relevant online files.
“Accounts closed, provisions cancelled, memberships annulled, will made, order of service completed, eulogy written… Thank you so much, Mister Soames, I sincerely wish all our clients were so thorough.”
“Any remaining proprietary data rights’ claims officially relinquished,” Joleon Soames concluded with a satisfied air, “all done and almost dust to dusted.”
He was a truly ancient black guy, five hundred and five years old! Way back in the day, before disease and injury negation became the dominant paradigm and any medical diagnosis and treatment had been completely automated, he’d been a hospital doctor. Allan Exit noticed that Riga was as fascinated as she by the former medico’s hair, not because of the unusually tall flattop style so much as its natural white colour. Like the snow in Fargo, her assistant would observe later. What fell as snow in their own time came in shades of grey.
“I bet you have some stories, sir,” Allan Exit said, making conversation.
If anyone deserved a little time to pass over peacefully, it was the supremely acquiescent Joleon Soames. So, she sat down to join the deceased in a cup of Startcos that Riga cheerfully made for them almost unbidden, not even complaining when she banged her head in the cupboard that was the kitchen.
“Call me Joleon, please,” their cadaver said with a toothy smile, “after all it is my funeral.”
“Joleon,” Allan Exit obliged, raising her cup to toast her client.
“Thank the good lord I won’t have to drink this crap no more,” Joleon said, grimacing after taking a mouthful.
“You’ve had such a good innings, Joleon,” Allan Exit said, almost forgetting and taking a sip of her own steaming cup of Starcos.
“To use the vernacular, good and long are very different animals, son,” Joleon said.
“Actually…” Allan Exit began apologetically even as Riga tried and failed to stifle a guffaw.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Joleon said, grinning and foolishly embarrassedly as he realised his gender mistake, “you see just how ancient I’ve gotten!?”
“You worked as an actual doctor, examining real live patients and everything?” Riga asked, her pug nose inadvertently wrinkling in something closely akin to disgust.
“Yes, mam,” Joleon confirmed, “right there on the frontline in an Accident and Emergency Department for the best part of four decades. I specialised in treating acute traumatic injuries.”
“You saw people’s blood and bone and guts and everything?” Riga pressed, morbidly fascinated.
“I could tell you stories make your hair curl.”
Riga cleared her throat, deliberately twitching her brow up and down. And it was Allan Exit’s turn to be amused, which she did much more decorously than her assistant, allowing herself merely a fleeting smile.
“Present company excepted,” Joleon apologised to Riga, acknowledging her baldness, indeed the total absence of body hair indicated by her lack of either eyebrows or eyelashes.
“Take my pulse,” Riga said, extending her arm to the deceased.
Joleon Soames duly set to the task in hand, feeling around her wrist.
“Well,” he said, meeting Riga’s eyes and taking in her pleased with herself smirk, “don’t that beat all!”
“Do you remember meat?” Riga asked, changing tack in a way that most people would find disconcerting.
“No one is that old!” Joleon scoffed, unfazed. “But my daddy done told me that when he was a boy he ate beefsteak pretty near every darned week.”
Both Riga and Allan Exit were stunned to open-mouthed silence, contemplating the simultaneous barbarity, debauched indulgence and environmental harm of such an action.
“He was raised on a farm,” Joleon said, compounding their stupefaction by adding, “They grew wheat to supply the baking industry, bread makers and so on.”
“Did you ever…” Riga began.
“When I was growing up we sometimes ate pancakes on special occasions, Conspicuous Consumption Day and the like. Of course, they were made with spelt flour by then, which had to be bought under the counter.”
“How did they taste?” Riga asked yearningly.
“Good,” Joleon said simply but with a relish that instantly made Riga’s mouth water.
“And when you retired as a doctor?” Allan Exit asked, because she could see it would be some time before her assistant was able to speak again, lost in a world of flavours imagined from no basis in physical experience whatsoever.
“Did nothing for half a century,” Joleon said, “lapsed into lackadaisical leisure and superfluous shopping, like most everyone else. Logged into virtual worlds played the hero, played the fool, played the games and played the game: watched every kind of porn; ordered up the new recreational drugs online as fast as they could develop them and took the trips.”
Allan Exit’s skin prickled and she strove to keep her heartbeat regular. She felt it becoming stuffy in the little dome room, close.
“I was always a tad restless, though,” Joleon continued, “uncomfortable with futility. When the first ship of colonists headed for Mars and the Irrelevance Riots kicked off….”
“The Irrelevance Riots were what sparked The Unrest,” Allan Exit contributed, excited despite her sense of foreboding. “That was before U-City was even one unified territory. The Mars flights were when people realised that life was literally leaving them behind?”
“The mass of people, anyway,” Joleon said, “ergo the irrelevant. The technology-owning elite sent their up-loadable intelligences, life-histories and their DNA with the colonists, of course.”
“A parting of the ways,” Allan Exit mused.
“I came out of retirement then,” Joleon continued, “treated gunshot, gassed and bludgeoned protesters, rioters and a good many innocents caught in the crossfire. Eventually, started up my own A and E unit in an abandoned shale-gas power plant: called up some former colleagues, doctors, nurses, orderlies, and got right back to work. Just like old times only better, worse that is – we had bodies bleeding every which way all over that fart-smelling mausoleum of a place!”
“Anyone who rioted was excluded from medi-care?” Allan Exit checked her history.
“Damn straight they were,” Joleon confirmed. “First thing we had to do after the riots really caught fire was to dig out people’s chips because the algorithms were frying the frontal lobes of anyone detected out of place for too long. I think it was the first time they tried that shit.”
“And you?” Riga manged, catching up with the conversation.
“One of my colleagues dug out mine and I dug out his. Hell of a guy: Alejandro!” Joleon toasted his friend in the coffee substitute that he’d evidently forgotten for the moment he hated.
“One hell of guy.”
“You were disconnected?!” Allan Exit queried, unable to hide her amazement in spite of herself.
But Joleon was momentarily lost in a reverie, patently recalling a sparkling romance.
“You were disconnected, Joleon?” Allan Exit found herself repeating even as she ran her finger under her high collar: the room felt increasingly warm and discomfiting.
“For about a decade,” the deceased roused himself, “we all were. During The Unrest a group of neighbourhoods in our area came together to form a ZAD and we declared ourselves autonomous. We held out for almost ten years of bitter fighting. The drones dropped bombs, nerve gas, biological weapons. Then we had a couple of bitter years of intense street fighting against their mercenaries... All record-breaking viewer ratings, year on year.”
“Was that Holding?” Allan Exit enquired nervously.
“Holding was an inspiration for all of us,” Joleon told her. “In the end, when they’d had their fun and public opinion was swaying our way, the corporate police rounded up what was left of us. Some got away, though, the clowns….”
“CLOWNS?” Riga enquired shrilly, beating Allan Exit to the exclamation by just a nanosecond but a logarithmic order of decibels.
“From the start some of the rioters dressed up as clowns,” Joleon explained, ‘took on this ancient protest culture, very militant but crazy funny with it, and I mean crazy, like a sect of something. They wore goofed up military uniforms and had a whole different way of looking at things, of being: ‘innocent as lambs, wily as coyotes, rascally as racoons’. That’s the sort of language they used for themselves, conjuring extinct animals all the time. They were some kind of heroes, though, in the end.”
“Like a deviant militia,” Allan Exit murmured.
“Well, the clowns and some other groups with enough gumption escaped the round-up in our ZAD, slipped the net as the Rats closed in.”
“Rats?” Allen Exit asked.
“The street name for CorpoRATe Police,” Joleon supplied, stressing the syllable. “I’d have gone with the clowns if not for my patients.”
A clap of thunder sounded like the renting of the earth, shaking the walls of the dome and and then rumbling long and low for what seemed like an age. Each one of the trio sat around the table looked to the heavens, though there was no skylight or even a window to reveal the weather to them. Allan Exit noted an amber double-plus storm warning flashing in her internet connection.
“And what happened to you, Joleon?” she asked, as the thunder pealled away.
“Spent the next half century banged up here, imprisoned in this dome; tagged and tethered, re-chipped but with restricted connectivity. If I’d ever tried to leave, they’d have zapped me. And I could only access ‘public information data’ and the deluge of corporate marketing bullshit: couldn’t contact my friends, couldn’t access social media, nothing. The motherfuckers wouldn’t even let me keep up with medical advances, closed those forums to me. Basically they sedated and brainwashed me for fifty years!”
“Wow,” Riga mouthed. “And then?”
“Then I was released, rebooted and reconnected.”
“And I’ve been waiting for you ever since. This isn’t any living. Give me incarceration over irrelevance anytime. And I’d take the desperation and deprivations of the ZAD, the bone and blood and guts, mucus, puke and pus, over both every day of the week.”
Outside the storm broke with tremendous force, a cacophony of hailstones hammering on the roof of the dome.
“Sir,” Allan Exit said urgently, raising her voice to be heard, “I should caution you….”
She was aware, almost painfully aware, of an unprecedented lull in the internet traffic in her brain, approaching silence, almost no layers, and no pop-up ads.
“Too late for that,” Joleon said, grinning, “I’m already dead, remember!”
And the intensity of the appeal in her voice caused Joleon Soames’ grin to slide from his face like a molten mask. He made a telling eye contact with the funeral director, sharply informed by the perturbation arcing across her ruby corneas.
“But you two mustn’t take any notice of the rantings of crazy old dead guy,” Joleon said with a forced chuckle.
With an effort, he reformed his features to look cheery again, though to the close observer the result this time around was more a rictus grin.
“Thank you, Joleon,” Allan Exit said, aware of the digital brouhaha beginning to reassert itself in her head, the velocity and volume increasing to a tumultuous whirlwind blur once more, inundating and concussing her. “I’m sure it’s a relief to get your –er – sins off your chest.”
“Sure is,” Joleon said, again meeting her eyes, and in this encounter the grey and stony flatness of his own gaze told Allan Exit all she needed - and more than she wanted – to know.
“Life is what we make of it,” Allan Exit offered a hook.
“I’ve kept a virtual dog these last decades,” Joleon responded, “Spot.”
“A comfort, I’m sure.”
“We met a clown,” Riga interjected suddenly, ingenuous of the tension but not oblivious of the spark that her words returned to the deceased’s eyes, “just today.”
“Not the type of clown as you referred to, though” Allan Exit said, contriving to sound – and trying feel – very certain, meanwhile fixing Riga with an admonishing look.
“Can we get this over with?” Joleon sighed impatiently, running his long fingers through his fierce hair and massaging his scalp.
“Just do your thing.”
“We already did, Joleon, sir,” Allan Exit said, slipping her blue gloves from her jacket pocket.
“In the Starcos?” Joleon gaped.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Allan Exit said.
Uncharacteristically gentle, Riga took the cup from Joleon Soames’ limp hand before he spilled a single drop.
“Well, that almost took a rather – er - peculiar turn,” Allan Exit said quietly when they were back in the hearse with the body of Joleon Soames safely pre-processing in one of the vehicle’s twin active-coffin pods. Allan Exit wasn’t so old-school that she wished to undertake pre-processing manually. Serendipitously, the storm had ceased in time for them to transport the deceased in an appropriately dignified manner without having to use the Dyneema canopy on their coffin trolley. A freshly emerged sun was beginning to melt the hogback of agglomerated hailstones in the roadside gutters. In the distance, lightening arced silent across a greasy orange sky.
“Weird old cove,” Riga said, “but I kinda liked him.”
“It takes all sorts, as they say,” Allan Exit recited tritely, declining another call: this was getting tiresome.
“Reprocessing Centre?” Smooth Eddie enquired blandly.
“Fast as you can,” Allan Exit instructed.
“The service should be short,” Riga said, checking on her wrist device what Joleon Soames had specified, “even I can read this eulogy: he was born; he was a doctor; he lived a while, existed longer; he died; he is survived by no dependents, no known friends nor former lovers.”
“Short is sweet,” Allan Exit said, nodding her head but frowning.
“I’m going to add that he had a fine head of hair,” Riga decided. “Whatever,” Allen Exit allowed, uncharacteristically distracted from her normally scrupulous professionalism. “The sooner we’re done the better. We need to get back to the office. Today’s events dictate an infernal amount of bureaucracy.”
“I have something I need to do this evening,” Riga said, squirming in her seat.
“No worries, you can leave the admin to me,” Allan Exit said affably, noting her assistant’s gape, delightedly surprised at the facility of her escape.
“Thank you,” Riga acknowledged, awkwardly sincere, “it’s not my strongest suit.”
“But could you manage to come in early tomorrow?” Allan Exit asked, guilelessly.
“Sure, no bother,” Riga concurred with a shrug.
“Pack a bag, would you, essentials for a day or two.”
“Why? Where are we off to?”
“Where the brass bands apparently play tiddely-om-pom-pom?”
“Beside the seaside?”