Chapter 2: Animal Protein

This week’s special was ‘the roll of roasting beef’, which hadn’t seen a cow before but as far as George could remember, was pretty realistic. They had a choice of this or the ‘chicken’, which was OK, but only lasted two days, compared to three or four with the ‘beef’. Jodie had never eaten chicken or beef, and the last natural protein she tasted was some sort of pulverised maggot steak which had been upgraded from agriprotein to human food. It was one of those ‘real meat’ scams, involving Department of Health corruption and importation documents being signed for fees. The product was dumped on the market by a South African conglomerate a couple of years ago, when she still received discretionary food vouchers she could spend in Tesco. That scam had lasted all of six months, until A&E departments started filling up with botulism cases. Since then, and before Tesco closed down, all unprocessed food imports were stopped, and food processing now took place in one of Amazon’s vast automated factories outside the city.

On principle, let alone the botulism scare, Jodie was not a big fan of animal protein, or synthetic meat, which was almost all grown in a lab from bacteria. She’d been brought up to kill bacteria with antiseptic sprays, not to eat them for nutrition. If the family was better off, for instance if she’d been made redundant from a government job, there would be dried Krill shavings every week in their B plus box. Jodie’s friend, Carmella, who had lost her job in The Central Bank, and was eligible for an A plus single person box, occasionally invited her over for a fish curry, even though Jodie could only bring her porridge ration as a contribution.  Carmella was a good cook, and ever since the bank let the last of their staff go, she’d been traipsing the city in search of spices to bring her rations to life.  The porridge was flavourless, but it mixed well with the Krill and turmeric to bulk up the curry.

Jodie was unpacking their Standard Box B, for three adults, or two adults and two children. The words ‘Box B’ were printed in giant letters on the side, in case the recipient might pick out the wrong box in a mass delivery, which often happened in the lobby where the boxes were dropped on a Monday for all the apartments in the block.  It was barcoded with the family’s details, so the truckbot was sure to dump the same shit on the doorstep every week. It got stacked in the communal hallway, along with four or five other Box B’s and several Box A’s for the singles, and one or two Box C’s for the largest families. This block had no premium boxes delivered.  The apartments were smaller and less well furnished than Carmella’s, and besides, if an A plus box were delivered, it would be snaffled before you could say ‘Krill Curry’.

Bigger families which were allocated a Box C seemed to get slightly less food per person, which was presumably intended as a discouragement from having more children, but it was all the same shit, as Jodie established once when she fancied a change and opened someone else’s Box C to check.

When she first started at Tesco, Jodie topped up the larder with whatever she could get from work, which were considered special staff perks.  Every night, the branch manager gave out damaged packs and some out of date items to the staff who worked hardest.  It was presented as a perk, but really it became a big bone of contention when everyone was competing for leftovers, because they were working for minimum wages. Jodie was always among the top employees when it came to productivity scores, as she’d learned to keep moving all day. She had been told by the store manager, who had been trying to get his dirty hands into her knickers for months, that the staff productivity algorithm scored distance covered in a day  as the number one measure of productivity.  Once she knew that, it was easy to fiddle the results. Even if she was taking her lunchbreak, she’d eat while walking up and down the isles, and she loaded shelves by parking the pallet as far as possible from the display.

Universal Income meant that everyone got enough to live on, and was effectively treated equally.  Rations were the same for everyone in the estate, so at least there was no envy or food theft.  Housing used to be graded for UI recipients, based on their last earned income, but once the private pensions were taken over, that all changed.  They were all replaced by a single tier UI, and the grading shifted to smaller items, like food and travel tokens.  Now, even if you lost your job as CEO of a multinational, you’d only receive the same UI.  If you had any sense, you’d have your millions stashed overseas, and you’d be spending most of your time working out ways to circumvent the UI system to spend your money in the black market. Carmella was one of the unemployed with slightly better food rations, but as far as Jodie knew, she had the same healthcare package and educredit vouchers.

For Joe Public, Universal Income was completely pre-spent on food, educredit, space charge and healthcare.  There was nothing left for discretionary spending, not even for M-rail fares or books or art materials, sports equipment or even cosmetics.  The days of going down the local for a pint or even to a coffee shop for a cappucino were gone.  It was all fixed so you couldn’t do anything to make it better. You got what you were given, even when you wanted to do something to get more, you couldn’t.

Jodie always retrieved the box from the lobby on a Friday, as soon as she heard the delivery, ever since the squatters from the basement apartment raided all the boxes for the tokens, and the family had to manage on reduced rations all week after that.  George was meant to be the hard man and go downstairs with his crowbar or a baseball bat to sort them out, instead of fucking around in his lock-up with the Ford, but he was too busy cleaning the carburettor to do his thing.

“What’s the point of all the work you do on those engines, dad?” Jodie complained. “Even if you ever get it running, you’ll have nothing to put in the tank. What’s the point of searching for parts on those sites, when we haven’t got any tokens for food?”

“That’s not the point, love.  I only need one or two more parts. It’s a classic. I built them gearboxes for years. I can do it with my eyes shut and one hand tied behind my back. It’s not about finishing. It gives me a reason to get up, and a reason to get out of this prison and feel the weather. I know you don’t understand.  You should find something that occupies your brain, like me, instead of taking the happies every day.”

“That’s not fair, dad.  You know I didn’t want to be made redundant, and I want to work. I hate it in here as much as you do, but there’s nothing to do. I know you want me to get the analytics exams and to get a job with Zurich like Ellen, but like she said, there’s no new openings, and I can’t concentrate on the studying if I take the pills, and I can’t get through the day without them either. What am I meant to do?”

George and Jodie have never been on the same wavelength.  He was much more like Ellen, without the mental acuity, and Jodie was like Elsie used to be, full of emotional intelligence but not prepared to apply any logic to her life.

Jodie’s pills were costing a lot, as they were the high dose.  They kept her from wanting much though. Nothing at all really.  She no longer felt the need to find a partner.  She couldn’t be bothered cooking so they only ate the prepared microwave mush most days. It all looked the same, smelt the same, tasted the same. She never cleaned the apartment, didn’t make any effort with Elsie, and had almost nothing to say for herself.  The educredit they received as part of the UI wasn’t getting used, and she knew she would fail the exams if she even went ahead with them. George had given up trying to change her, and Ellen was never around to bring them together or to push Jodie.

“Whatever else you do, you should lay off them pills. They’re draining your brain. You need to be sharp if you want to survive.  And we could use the tokens for some more educredit for your analytics exams. If you don’t bother even trying, you’re fucked.”

Jodie  was meant to be re-sitting her analytics exams next month even though she’d got no chance, any more than any of the thousands of other hopefuls, to get in to Zurich Insights, or any of the other insurance companies. It was all AI driven these days, without human intervention.  All the less sophisticated jobs had gone the same way.  Anything that could be automated had been, and the only jobs were for Ethics Audit engineers, which were about managing and authorising the AI processes.  The EA engineers were supposed to be a fail-safe against AI decisions which didn’t benefit humans, but when you looked at how most people fucked their own lives up, why should we be worried about AI making a worse job of it? EA engineering was really hard to get into anyway, and only people with a lot of experience in deep learning logic and critical path analysis had a chance. Ellen had been hoping to get a promotion into EA at one point, and out of Insights, even though she was only ever trained as an insights coder, because she felt she understood the criteria that Zurich applied to premiums. She hated the way it had gone, even in the last year or so, with the increasing thresholds and declining benefits, but she thought her boss Jade should help her get the move, rather than recommending her for the scrap heap.

Ellen collected up Elsie’s dirty washing and stuffed it into a carrier bag.  She’d been taking her parents’ laundry home more often, in an effort to save their tokens, and putting it into her own service.  Elsie didn’t notice at all, but George was grateful.

“Are you off, love?  Careful outside, going to the M-Rail, won’t you.  It’s been designated unsafe round here, you know. Not that I’m covered for being attacked anyways, since the mugging. I can’t go out unless I want to take my chances. That’s what the crowbar is for, you know. Maybe I’ll walk down with you to the stop, just in case.”

“Thanks dad.  I’ll be fine.  It’s early, and people are still going home from work.”

“Yeah? Round here? You must be joking. Nobody within five miles has seen a pay packet in years. Come on, let your old dad accompany you to your train.”

As they walked out of the block into the heat, George stepped in front of Ellen with his crowbar held like a sleeping baby in the crook of his arm.  He looked left and right before he took a pace forward to let her out of the porch of the building, and they walked quickly to the M-rail in silence.


Chapter 2: Jodie’s PQ

In the early days, when the kids were small, George spent hours online, scanning for alternatives to the PQs they been awarded. Loads of sites used to offer fixes, though most of that stuff was fraudulent, and Zurich and the others quickly moved to close it all down. Some of the more gullible people George knew got burned, paying out their hard-earned savings to crooks who claimed they could hack the chips or the database or whatever and lower your score.  George had once been caught like that trying to clock the milometer on his Cortina as a lad, and he’d been up in court then, so he knew it was a bad idea trying to cheat the system. Ellen said it still happened a lot at Zurich, and she told him all about the Egress files and the security department and that the whole chip hacking thing had become an epidemic.

People who went off the grid were arrested quickly, if possible, because every hour after they cut the connection made it harder to find them.  Anyone looking to do it properly pre-planned their escape and used a load of diversionary tactics to confuse the drones and online tracker bots which were sent out to relocate chips as soon as they went down.  Anyone who was found, and that was most people who naively thought they only had to demobilise the chip and they’d be left alone, was deported.  Deportation had become popular for all white collar crime, as it was cheaper than prison, and with the universal tracking options, and compulsory chipping, there was very little organised violent crime in the old-fashioned sense anymore. There was no incarceration in the UK for hacking, the most prevalent crime of all, as the prisons were full of no-hopers, living on the streets, who had caused disturbances when off their heads, or with the explicit intention of getting a night in the warm.  Jail was more of a drying out facility than a deterrent against crime.

When George had the job at Fords, and they had a good staff healthcare scheme, he thought the high insurance costs for Jodie would only be till she grew out of all the temper tantrums and got over the colic, then he’d have her re-tested and she’d come down in cost.  Even at school, when she messed about in class and didn’t concentrate, and bunked off and failed her GCSEs, he thought it was just a phase, and nothing to do with her scores. It seemed crazy to him that you could be born with an adult’s personality and that G-mapping could decide what a tiny baby or a small child, or even a teenager was going to be like as a woman, and who she should meet, and what sort of children she and whoever should produce.  It seemed unjust to him that society could let a bunch of profit-driven insurance companies decide on everyone’s private life by penalising behaviour they calculated would probably increase claims on their medical  or security services.  He’d always been a labour voter, a good unionist and supporter of the welfare state, so it’d been anathema to him that the world had changed in this way. But it had crept up on everyone.  When g-mapping came in first, it was described as a wonderful new way of picking up the minority who had genes with potential problems for their children, like Downs or Spina Bifida or whatever, and that you could ensure a healthier population where healthcare costs were driven down and more could be spent on education and the environment. Everyone bought into the G-mapping to make sure their chosen partner didn’t carry genetic problems, before they married or started a family. But then it began to infiltrate daily life in every way.  Never a week went by without a new advisory v-mail from Zurich.  ‘Don’t eat full fat if you’ve got a PQ to die for.’  ‘Drink bottled water, it’s points-free.’ ‘Wear your mask on the m-rail; or the bugs will hit you where it hurts, in the wallet.’ Then the v-mails tailed off, and it was all automated. They didn’t tell you how the algorithms worked or what you did that caused the premiums to go up or not. They just penalised inappropriate behaviour with charges, and everyone tracked themselves and worked out how to reduce their scores, like meditating to slow your breath, or exercising your brain to win at the pub quiz or something.  It was insidious and threatening.  Everything registered on the chip and the chip could be read everywhere you went, from the kharzi to the bedroom. If you were a PQ95, and you were lucky enough to be fucking your neighbour’s wife, who was a stunning PQ60, their premiums would rocket, rather than yours dropping. If you ran down the stairs two at a time, because you were late for work and the lift was out of action, your premiums went up, even though the exercise should have been good for you. Broken ankles cost a lot in medical care.

Everyone learned what not to do, and everyone got offered what the insurance companies deemed good for them.  George’s old habits died hard.  First the cigs, then the booze, then the cream in food, the chocolates and chips from the chipper, then the coffee and sliced pan and so it went on.  Sure, he could still buy most of his little indulgences, if he had the money, but he couldn’t afford the healthcare premiums they carried as well as the purchase price.

Ninety five turned out to be a high PQ. When it came to Jodie finding boyfriends, it was high enough to negate the benefit of her beauty and creativity, her fun-loving mischief and the depth of her brown eyes, her perfect sallow skin and the way she smiled when she got what she wanted.  Ninety five made you a bit of a pariah it turned out, and that meant you had to be rich or not at all choosy, and Jodie was always choosy. After the abortion, she stayed in a lot, and only when she settled in with the lads at Tesco did she start dating again, but now all that was gone.

It had been a while since Jodie went out with anyone.  She really wanted to meet the right guy, but they were all sub-70s and they couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, to go out with a 95.  There were plenty of men with a PQ80 or above who were stuck on G-Match all the time, hoping for a 50 or a 60, and getting nowhere. Some of them even had good jobs and prospects. It’s not that she didn’t look great in the video, even though it was made a year ago. She was a lovely young woman with a lousy genotype and an unpredictable personality, and there were no longer places to meet men who didn’t pre-check her scores.  Everyone had Amazon glasses, and informagear was a social pre-requisite.  If you did go to a club where you were off-grid, you were expected to be up-front with the score.  Most people read your PQ even while they were saying hi, or when you entered the room, scanning it on their Amazon before using their eyes. It was no longer considered intrusive.  Meeting someone who wasn’t easy to read or who was using a PQ blocker to stop people checking their score was a quick turn-off, so Jodie quickly got used to rejection, and lost confidence, and stopped going anywhere where people ‘blind-dated’. G-Match offered everyone a less hurtful introduction, only to those unlikely to reject each other on PQ grounds.

When she first lost the job, and realised she would have almost no discretionary spending within her UI payments, she let her subscription to G-Match go, and went down to the arches a few times to see if there might be some action on the street. She knew that bed-rollers in The Village would ignore her PQ if they themselves were poor enough not to be paying their insurance.  The insurers had very little interest in the G-Match service for people on UI, because they would never receive more premium than the Government subvention once someone was unemployed, and for almost all these people, finding a new job was impossible.  Like others on UI, Jodie thought that a high PQ would no longer matter, but of course the long term strategy of obligatory G-mapping was to cut health and security costs, not to drive premiums up.   But going on the street hadn’t worked out well, and the last time she’d tried to socialise under the arches without pre-arranging it, George had to come down with a crowbar to sort out a bunch of bed-rollers who had her up against the wall. Luckily the surveillance camera there was set so high under the arch, and encased in a wire cage, that nobody had managed to stone it, and luckily Jodie’s foray happened when George had the wall TV on constantly for Elsie, and when they still had child tracking for her as an optional extra on the insurance. He’d opted to have her tracked when she left the building, as a precaution, since she was always unpredictable and unreliable.

Jodie had suddenly come up on screen, getting into difficulties, and the system alarm went off to alert him. George immediately recognised the arches, where his lock-up was, and he was up and out of the flat like a whippet. Lucky too that the lift was working, and that he had his tools in the flat. Once he’d waved the crowbar about a bit, and put his seventeen stone body between the three lurching junkies and his daughter, they scattered quickly enough.  They were only teenagers, and off their heads, but he knew they’d have had her and then slit her throat, soon as look at her, and this part of Tower Hamlets was justifiably an unsafe zone. That was only a few months before his own mugging, probably at the hands of the same young ones.

“That’s it now, Jodie love. You’ll have to find a way of meeting people in sensible places.  Isn’t there a youth club on the estate?”

“Fuck off, dad! I’m twenty one for fuck’s sake. And have you seen the place?”

“No. Can’t say I have. It’s in the basement of Block J isn’t it? It’s run by the church though. Surely there’s some nice boys there.”

“Yeah, sure. What century are you livin’ in, dad? Probably a knockin’ shop for purvy priests.  The average age in there is thirteen. Bunch of spotty little wankers I’d say.  Except the dealers who hang around the place, getting the young ones started.”

“OK, I get the picture. So what do other people do? Aren’t there any free dating services?”

“Nope, and even if there was, I ain’t got the credit on me Amazon.”

It had taken Jodie months to come down from her addiction to the Amazon, which she was never without when she was working, but which she couldn’t afford any more. She used to be on it day and night, checking in with her friends and reading the news, or scanning G-Match for prospective dates.

When Ellen arrived, Jodie had to buzz her in on the old box by the apartment door.  The main door should have opened automatically, since Ellen was family, but George had never registered the apartment with the L block database, because he didn’t fancy everyone knowing who their visitors might be.  Not that they had many visitors, even then, but he was always funny about privacy.

Jodie was so bored now that she enjoyed sorting out the groceries when they were delivered each week. It reminded her of Tesco. In her empty day, it was one of the few tasks she looked forward to, even though the box contents hardly ever varied.  Besides bottled water and the weekly book of washing tokens, there were the usual seven family tubs of microwaveable porridge, full of the required mineral supplements, but not much calorific value. Then there were sachets of curry and Bolognese flavouring, which they rarely used, and then enough low-cal drinks sachets for the three of them to have one each a day. Jodie did think about trying to trade the flavour sachets at the Barter Shop in Q block, until she found that everyone else had the same idea and nobody wanted them.

Chapter 2: Jodie

Jodie was unpacking the weekly food box on the kitchen table. She was nervy and restless, shuffling about in her grey hoodie and drainpipes and the inconsistent pink fluffy slippers with ears on, which might have been Elsie’s.  Despite a lethargic gait and unkempt appearance, she was methodical and economical in her actions, as she flitted between the box and the cupboard, stacking the shelves with packets. Jodie never felt calm, even when she was exhausted and half asleep, despite the higher dose of SSRIs she was taking.  She had dark rings under her chocolate brown eyes, and her straggling fringe hung close to her eyebrows, obscuring her frown. She was always beautiful and inscrutable, and she rarely smiled. Now she seemed to Ellen to be even more withdrawn and unhappy, which she was. She was only 23 but she looked older. Her skin had been the colour of honey, but had begun to show a grey green tinge, like Elsie’s, since she wasn’t going out. Ever since George’s incident down at the arches the whole family had been on lock-down, and besides, Jodie was no longer interested in going out, or in meeting her friends.  She started to age more quickly once she went on the pills, and she was losing weight. A year ago, she’d have been called lithe, or fit, by half the lads in Tesco, and now she’d be called scrawny, though she wouldn’t, because the lads in Tesco were all gone, along with the store.

Even George had started to see the change, though she was always the apple of George’s eye.  The baby of the family and gorgeous as a teenager.  He always thought she could have had her pick of the boys in the old days, if she’d been out at dances, like George used to be, every Saturday night. She’d have knocked them out down the Mecca. But when she was G-Mapped at birth, and with George and Elsie’s biological quotients, and her personality scores, Zurich wasn’t going to do her any favours.  Elsie and George had a combined 190, which is pretty bad, though they never really cared, since they were settled and Elsie was already seven months gone with Ellen when they found out. George was always overweight, and Elsie was big boned. She was such a strong woman when she was young, and never a day’s sickness, even though she turned out to have high blood pressure and had to spend half her pregnancy in hospital. That was in the days when they’d take you in for rest without killing you on the premium. Wouldn’t happen anymore.  Even with Jodie, Elsie had to rest up at home, which was hard, since it came off her mat leave and Fords were cutting overtime after they lost the Uber autocab contract.

Ellen was born with a PQ79, which George thought was pretty good, in his naivety. Nobody really understood the implications of the new PQ scores then, and the Zurich FAQs told him they could re-test her at sixteen to see if any of the personality or academic scores had dropped. Two years later, before he’d seen the impact on his premiums, Jodie was born a 95, and straight away the monthly charges went up.  She had the same Biological Quotients as Ellen, more or less, but her personality scores were much higher.  She was always a restless, irritable baby. She was colicky, always whinging and prone to screaming fits when she didn’t get what she wanted. She was so different from Ellen, who’d been docile as a toddler. George used to tease Elsie that she’d had a quickie with Billy the caretaker while he was at work. And she might’ve.  Billy was like a whippet and laughed like a hyena at Elsie’s jokes. Always helping her into the lift with the buggy and her shopping, so it wasn’t so far-fetched. But George and Elsie had always been monogamous and neither doubted the other.  Jodie was diagnosed with ADHD, and the methylphenidate was way outside their budget, so she suffered from a short attention span, anger management problems and anxiety.  She found school hard and failed most of her GCSEs, before getting pregnant at sixteen by one of the street kids on the estate. At the time, Zurich offered special rates on abortions to children in low income families, because in the long run it saved a lot of claims, so Jodie was marched to the clinic by Elsie, who still held out hopes she’d return to school and go on to college, like her older sister.  That was when Elsie was in charge, and George just went along with it, even though he wondered how Jodie would cope with the grief.

Once Elsie lost her job, which was soon after Jodie’s abortion, she didn’t go out much as there was no spare money. Jodie didn’t go back to school because she became really depressed and it was only the job at Tesco which saved her from self-harm.  She took to the routine, loved the bit of money and started going out again, once a week on a Friday.  She mainly went out to avoid the rows with Elsie, who wasn’t coping well with losing her own job. Jodie blamed Elsie for pressurising her to have the abortion, by forcing her to a decision which she’d never felt was hers, and Elsie blamed Jodie for failing to get her act together and go back to school.  The atmosphere at home became explosive, and George always took Jodie’s side.

Elsie’s VR obsession started as a bit of fun.  It was Ellen who’d bought Elsie her first headset as a Christmas present, and since then, she’d upgrade twice, and added the gloves and stepped up her usage to ten hours a day.  Jodie hated seeing her mother slouched in the arm chair, and refused to help George clean her up when she soiled herself, or feed her when she wouldn’t switch off the headset at mealtimes.

“She’s fuckin’ disgustin’, dad, and I ain’t touchin’ her” Jodie wailed. She had developed a street patois since she left Tesco, and laid it on thicker to annoy him.

“Look, love, I can’t do it on me own, and she’s past caring. If you don’t help around the place, we’ll end up living like pigs, and Ellen’ll stop coming round, and it’s not as if we can open the windows to let in some fresh air, is it?”

“I ain’t doin’ it.  You can change ‘er fuckin’ nappies. I’ll do the kitchen stuff but she’s your fuckin’ wife.”

“You watch your language, girl. What’s got into you since you lost your job? Who’re you trying to impress? Not me, ‘cos I know who you are, Jodie. I know you’re a sweet an’ loving daughter under all that shit.”


Once the insurance went up, He and Elsie did what they could to lower the premiums by eating healthily, and behaving sensibly, but you can’t fight genetics. Once you’ve got the score, you’re stuck with it. Everyone was grappling with the concept of PQ scores and how they affected your life.  It was bad enough being cajoled and beaten into behaving sensibly for the good of society, and all the nanny state garbage they were fed by the media, but the PQ crept up on everyone.  You thought you could choose to turn off the TV, close down the Amazon and not be influenced to behave in ways that the Government wanted, but the PQ was under the skin, literally. Once the chips fed all your activities to the central computers, you could see on your Amazon that some small thing you did, like drinking or smoking or going dancing, or getting into a pub brawl was going to cost you more. Then you made choices based on your own actions which changed you.  Instead of feeling under pressure from other people to conform, and then deciding whether you were prepared to fight them over it, or vote against them in elections, this game of trying to lower your PQ was like some sort of fucking meditation process to lower your heart rate.  You could see the effect even as you were reaching out for a swig of beer, or lifting a forkful of cream cake to your lips. You could taste the forbidden flavour of a kiss from a trouble-maker, and know that nobody but you would have to know and still you’d change.

Chapter 2: Driverless medicine

State healthcare was only available to those on UI, but that was a bit of a misnomer, since the state no longer ran the NHS. All the services were provided by the likes of Zurich, and nobody on UI could expect much except emergency treatment. The subvention which Zurich received per UI customer for the medical support it provided hadn’t gone up since the last election, but the numbers on UI had continued to rise, making the economics of supplying the NHS even less attractive, and the number of profitable premiums even smaller. The healthcare contractor industry had continued to do well because the range of medical supports it provided to the vast majority of people had gone down, while the proportion of people on UI had topped 85% in the last quarter. Seventeen in twenty of the 2020 working population were no longer employed, and the unemployment rates had risen exponentially as soon as UI was introduced and the tech giants had agreed to paying UI taxes on their obscene profits, in exchange for a ‘relaxation’ on redundancy obligations. It was as though corporate floodgates had been opened. The unions tried and failed to prevent the outflow of staff who were unable to compete with AI on any meaningful measure of productivity. The extreme right, who had fought their way to power with the support of nefarious online news manipulation service providers, took the view that the markets always knew best, and that the FTSE was a better measure of economic success than the employment index.

As numbers of unemployed people had gone up, and range of NHS services had been curtailed, a fine balance was maintained on the bread and butter UI healthcare business to ensure that even with tight margins, it was attractive.  Smaller insurers with a UI portfolio sold their books, as the industry became concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer providers, and through acquisition, Zurich built a wholesale business second to none.  The UI health facilities took over ageing hospitals and clinics with minimal investment, and stripped-back outdated technology which was being replaced in the premium clinics servicing employed people. Robotic surgery was one of the few areas which were cost-justified, and day-care hospital facilities predominated, alongside automated home health.

When George was taken into Mile End Hospital A&E after his mugging down at the arches, it was like the Marie Celeste. His medical requirements had been logged as soon as he received the first blow with the torque wrench to his head. The ambulance was scheduled and despatched while three teenage no-hopers kicked him in the stomach, and stabbed him twice. It arrived before they’d left the lock-up, laden down with car parts, and George lay in a pool of his own blood.  His vitals had all been monitored throughout the assault via his chip, and fed to admissions unit at the hospital while the driverless ambulance had been on its way to the lock-up. He’d been lifted carefully but unceremoniously onto the trolley by its robotic hoist, and shovelled into the back of the vehicle while the soothing trolley audio instructed him to lie still, and the morphine injection was administered by the trolley arm. By the time he was wheeled into Mile End A&E, the system had his surgical requirements set up on the ancient Da Vinci operating robot in Theatre 4. The trolley slid out of the side of the ambulance and followed the magnetic floor track to the surgical wing, where it lined him up on the conveyor which fed four operating theatres in rotation. Despite the morphine, George was still conscious, and found himself between a jumper with two broken legs, who cried continuously, and an unconscious burn victim whose story he never found out, as the hospital worked its way through the evening list. In each theatre, Da Vinci surgical robots worked quietly and efficiently, while robotic orderlies cleaned and replenished supplies. Nobody attended the operation, because there was no need for human intervention, and he was left alone with his fear, despite the painkillers. There was no general anesthetic available on the UI policy. That was reserved for platinum policy holders who might be eligible for a day in the recovery room.  George’s broken bones were re-set and pinned, and his stab wounds stitched in fifteen minutes and as his trolley followed the tracks back towards the ambulance bay, he was signed off by the only person on duty, a first year medical intern slouched in the control room, fifteen hours into his shift, without a personal examination. The surgical tools had made their report, matched it to George’s chip feed, and established adequate recovery scores. The data on the four screens arrayed before the intern allowed him to say ‘yes’ to each of the four release forms generated from the throughput of all four theatres simultaneously. It was an outdated formality. The intern would not have known what to do if George’s recovery scores were low, given his lack of additional cover for hospital care, and post-operative medication had already been provided, so how it was up to home care.

From the theatre, he was delivered back into the ambulance for the short drive home. By the time Jodie had reached the front entrance, to take him up in the lift, he was regaining consciousness and could help himself off the trolley and into his and Elsie’s bed without the hoist.  The trolley took itself back to the ambulance as soon as he was offloaded.  He’d been supplied with slow release medication, controlled by Mile End in response to his chip feedback, and for six weeks, had been on pain killers and antibiotics. As they ran out, George’s auto check-up results were fed back to him through his v-mail by Zurich, reporting acceptable bone growth and tissue healing. The v-mail wasn’t a courtesy.  It instructed him in no uncertain terms to get off his arse and do some exercise, or have his premium penalised and his emergency care package frozen for six months.

All the v-mails he received about the incident, ostensibly issued by the hospital, but actually from Zurich were clearly circulars, compiled and personalised to his case, and containing the usual friendly CGI characters.  George wasn’t bothered that he’d spoken to no one in the whole process, from the beginning of the assault until Jodie came into his bedroom five days later with his breakfast porridge.  What was the point of listening to a real doctor tell you what the machines already knew and why make the painful journey back to Mile End for a check-up when the chip reported exactly how his recovery was going moment by moment. All in all, it had been faultless. His PQ had been like a roller coaster of course, and had he had a job, his premium would have cleaned out his bank account, but on UI, you didn’t have to pay for care.  The smooth talking CGI ‘doctor’ in the while coat in the v-mail, which had never studied medicine, told him how much exercise he must take, and showed him YouTubes of how to go about it. Another v-mail arrived shortly afterwards from a smart young CGI ‘executive’ in her navy suit and white blouse, seated behind a large polished desk, warning him not to enter any unsafe zoned outdoor areas or he would forfeit his emergency care rights under the policy. Fair enough.

As a Zurich employee, Ellen’s Silver Policy premium was paid at source, and she had no choice as to her level of cover.  She had never claimed on it, and had never been told how she could do so. Likewise, George, Elsie and Jodie received their UI net of insurance contributions, and they had no idea how to claim against their policy.  All their medical costs were sent direct to Zurich, as were their contributions to local policing, schools and their rent.  Amazon took payment from the government for their food supply, plus their limited access to phone and TV, leaving the family with a book of vouchers each week which could be redeemed against laundry costs, cosmetics and toiletries, happies, VR and other small luxuries.

Chapter 2: A date for dad

Ellen had been visiting less since Jodie moved home, after she was made redundant when Tesco closed down all the high street outlets. A few months before they let her go, they moved her off the tills when the trolley scanners were installed and sales became fully automated. For a while, she was posted near the exit, to make sure everyone was happy they’d been charged correctly and were happy to be scanned again as they left.  That customer service role didn’t last long, once people got used to talking to the app instead. Then Amazon bought Tesco for its delivery service and that put paid to high street food shops altogether. Everything was being delivered from the farms direct to Amazon, to be packed centrally and delivered.  She’d applied for the warehouse, but they only had a handful of staff left on order management, with fully automated picking, packing and delivery, and she didn’t have the programming qualifications for that. When she first lost the job, she started working on her analytics certificate at night, but pretty quickly, she lost the will to keep going, even with George and Ellen pushing her. Elsie had long since lost interest.

It had only been six months and already she was climbing the walls with boredom. George wanted to keep her in all the time, after his recovery from the mugging. The streets in Tower Hamlets became no-go zones for the police, and besides workers getting in and out of Ubers, only the M-rail slid silently in and out of the city, taking the eligible to work.  Ellen was the only one left in the family with a job, and that looked set to change within a few months, if not in the next round of cuts.  She was always the smart one, though.  She earned well and George thought that if she could make a good match, it would mean they might get out of the block and into a low-rise somewhere with a bit of greenery to look out on. Jodie resented her, and George, who’d always protected her, had become hopelessly dependent on her to advise him on how to look after Elsie and to manage their finances, as well as to cajole Jodie and help around the flat too.

“How’s work love?” George loved having Ellen round. It was his only real conversation of the week.

“Oh you know, dad. It’s hard and fast.  They keep upgrading the algorithms, and introducing new thresholds and premiums, so I’m run off my feet. Did you see on the Netflix News that Zurich let another hundred staff go last week? The thing is, they’ve got a new package which does my job, the G-Match applicant interface, without oversight. It’s still being assessed, but the signs are that it’s much more effective than people are at the same task. Even though they’ve got nearly half the population on G-Match, they’re still cutting staff.  Someone’s making a fortune, but it isn’t me. It’s getting more technical every day, even though we see less of the code nowadays. They want us to be more creative and come up with off-the-wall ideas to pull in the insurance switchers, but I was trained to be an analyst, not an artist, or a con-artist either.”

“So you’re meant to beat the computers by being more illogical or something? What do they want you to do?”

“Oh you know. Come up with some way of increasing the premiums without people switching. They’re busy cutting the benefits without telling people too. My department is trying to choose people for matches who will stay together after the first three months, ‘cos the biggest problem is break-ups.  Everyone needs to feel part of some bloody club, and it’s all about dating now, so I spend all day trying to check that the computers make the best matches.”

“You’re working on that dating app? I thought you were doing analytics. Some sort of clever way of looking at how people end up making insurance claims, not some dating app. So what’s the applicant interface when it’s at home? Sounds like a computer programme. Do people have to apply for permission to date? What a lot of bollocks! In my day, dating agencies showed people videos of each other and then they chose who to go out with, if they liked what they saw. Are you saying that it’s all automated now?  I s’pose they don’t need someone to make a decision, since it’s all numbers.  Have you tried it? What sort of fellas does it offer you?”

“Yeah, everyone uses G-Match now, Dad.  Even people like you, if they wake up and find their partner is, you know, living in a different universe.”

Ellen smiled sweetly at George, trying to make a joke out of Elsie’s problem, though he knew she meant it.  She hated the way Elsie had effectively deserted the ship since she became addicted to VR.  G-Match had started issuing millions of non-members with teasers in the form of pictures and profiles for potential matches, to try and entice them to sign up. You could go on the G-Match app, and scan through the images, and it would calculate your joint PQ, so you could choose ‘lowest first’ and see what the impact on your insurance premium would be. It was like online shopping on price comparison sites. Sometimes she sneaked a look on the system at who it would pair George with, if he joined, but nobody came up who she could imagine as a step-mother, and besides, she knew he’d never give up on Elsie. Despite where Elsie had landed, George never doubted he’d stay.

Besides, George wouldn’t be targeted by Zurich for potential custom, since he and Elsie were on UI, and besides, they were still registered as a couple on the system. UI matching was a whole different department, fully automated, and with the sole objective of minimising costs to the system.  The birth rate for UIs was dropping every year, which helped.  Ellen had wondered, when she heard that, whether UIs didn’t want children because they didn’t have space or spare income, or whether something else was suppressing the rates.  Maybe they were putting something in the UI food boxes.

Ellen could still run a trial match sub-routine for anyone without overstepping her authority, and when it was quiet at work, or she needed a break from the real work, she picked friends at random and had a look. Jade had twice had a go at her for wasting time doing this, especially when she put her own name into the system several times in one week.

“I’ve been on it for a while, but all I’ve had is crap so far, dad. You know I’m on PQ restrictions, and they keep tightening up the scores, so I only seem to get the dregs offered to me. My score isn’t that high, but it’s becoming worth less every month.  BMI points are up, and the cholesterol match is being re-graded. You’d wonder whether they’re interested in people being healthier, or just in cutting healthcare costs to a point where nobody gets any.”

“Rich people must be living longer than poor people nowadays, ‘cos we ain’t got the cover they can afford. I suppose the rich kids get a better selection of dates do they? That’d be a bit of fun, eh? You have a win on the horses and you get to go shopping for a pin-up! Then again, when I met your mum, it was just down to fancying her in the Mecca Dancing.  I couldn’t’ve cared less what her cholesterol level was. We was both drinkers and smokers, but then people died of heart attacks all the time at fifty or whatever.”

“Yeah, I know, dad.  That’s why I’m paying for it now. If you and mum had been a better match, I’d be fine. Still, you never even had your G-map done till I was born, did you?”

“I didn’t have to, and I wasn’t going to waste my money on getting chipped back then, ‘cos there was no incentive. If I’d been single, maybe, but we was happily married and healthy too. Then your mum went into the system when she got pregnant and I had no choice, and we got scored down, and even when I was at Fords, I couldn’t afford their healthcare plan. Not that it matters any more. The basic package is all we get on Universal Income, and that’s no fucking use to man nor beast. So you only get offered matches with men that are good for your health, and not the ones who you might fancy the most? That sounds crazy.”

“Yeah I know, and it’s not my health they care about, but only if I’m going to have children. The last guy they set me up with was a PQ75, and I’m a 78 at the moment. If he’d been even slightly, you know, attractive, I’d have been OK, because we’d have been about 150, and the premium would still be manageable, but he was thick as two short planks and weedy looking.  Any man with a bit of something about him is way lower on PQ, and I just can’t pay any more for the insurance from what they’re paying me. I would be fine without it, as I’m fit as a fiddle, but then I couldn’t get Jodie’s pills, and I couldn’t sign up to G-Match, and I’d be on loads of blacklists which would make life miserable. They don’t give staff the gold or platinum packages, you know, even if you work in the insights department like I do. I have to get a promotion to be offered gold, and there’s not a lot of chance of that when they’re replacing so many people with new upgrades. My boss, Jade, is on platinum, but that’s because her dad invented the whole system.”

Chapter 2: Life on UI

People who lost their jobs and found themselves on UI had been herded into this estate and others like it, and there was a long waiting list for flats, but George and Elsie had been lucky that Ford let go enough people in one tranche that they were able to jump the queue. It was a local cause celebre that the firm was about to lose 10,000 employees and none of them would be able to afford their existing accommodation once they were on UI. The Department of Social Housing dealt with the media rumbles by removing single apartment occupants in Tower Hamlet in favour of families. George and Elsie found themselves quickly evicted in Dagenham and transferred to high rise living.  Single occupants, who were all on UI, were transferred into dormitory blocks, or left to fend for themselves on the streets, and the disenfranchised soon established Bed-roller Village under the arches on Ackroyd Drive. George had kept a lock-up there for years, which he used to store car parts he’d filched from Fords, and his hoist. He’d spend hours on end under the storm lamp, oiling and tapping, listening to Heart FM and smoking rollies. It was his escape from the misery of the tower block which seemed like prison after Dagenham.  Here he could tinker with his gear boxes, rebuilding them again and again, making believe that he was still on the production line and still had to prove he could do it right. But the lock-up had been broken into and occupied by squatters looking for warmth, and it was ransacked for anything saleable. Luckily, George had expected this to happen sooner or later, as the Village filled up and all the toe-rags in Tower Hamlets began to descend on the arches, so he’d moved all his tools to the flat before the break-in. He hardly ever visited the arches any more, since he’d been beaten up there and robbed of his shoes a couple of years ago.

Elsie hadn’t worked in several years, and had just turned sixty, though she might have been mistaken as much older.  She was so unfit that she couldn’t walk any distance beyond the confines of the apartment, and her skin had a grey-green hue, for lack of exposure to UV light. She sat in her worn armchair day and night, and slept fitfully between her VR sessions. When Ellen arrived, she was slumped over, as though unconscious, but she was clearly not. Her loose flesh was trembling slightly as her bare flabby arms flailed slowly in mid-air.  She was wearing a full face VR mask, headphones and data gloves, which made her look like some latter day Darth Vader, and she seemed to have no awareness of the room or its occupants. She didn’t register her daughter’s arrival at all. In her reality she was fighting her way through an overgrown thicket in a verdant rainforest to find her one true love. All around her, covered in creepers and vines, lay larva blocks, the ruins of some ancient Inca temple, and the remains of carved statues, on which sat macaques and tarantulas. The sounds of parakeets and shrieking monkeys overwhelmed her and she felt slightly nauseated by the smell of exotic fruit rotting underfoot, and the smoke from the fires in the clearing she could see up ahead.

Tauro, the object of her mission, wearing nothing but his lion-skin thong and the leather straps around his upper arms, was tied to a stake in the centre of the Mayan village she had visited many times before, right beside a boiling caldron. Last time she was there, he was tied face down on the beheading stone in front of the chief’s hut, his taut arse in the air, and the time before, he fought two leopards in a small wooden cage, armed only with the long laces from his sandals, while the villagers looked on and cheered. Tauro could be saved only by Elsie, and he was otherwise doomed to be beheaded, torn to shreds or boiled alive, only to re-emerge in another life-threatening tale of heroism.

This time, she had no spear or machine gun to help her rescue plan. When she reached the weapons cache, and despite having accrued points for saving Tauro from execution, there were none to be had. She had progressed to a level of martial arts skill where she was equipped with only her machete to defend herself, and she had to free him from his bindings, while the guards slept.

Elsie’s pale blue acrylic shell suit was stained down the front, from the times that she had tried to feed herself whilst playing, and failed to connect the spoon with her mouth. She was indifferent to food when she was playing, and the porridge which George made every day was completely tasteless anyway, as he had never understood how to use the seasoning sachets provided. Elsie’s trousers were stretched taut over her sanitary nappy, which Ellen recommended last time she was home.  The chair had seen one too many accidents, and George finally gave up trying to unplug her so he could clean up.

“Fuck it, Ellen, she don’t care anymore.  I can’t manage to lift her and if I switch it off to get her to eat or go to the toilet, she starts that fucking howling like a dying cat. I can’t stand the sound of it, so I don’t never want to switch her off in the middle of a game. If I wait till she’s finished, I’m too late. I gave up talking to her ‘cos she never listens any more.  I haven’t had more than a few words out of her in weeks you know.  Nothing you could call conversation, anyways.”

Elsie had no objection to the nappies, as soon as she realised she could play for hours without getting up. She’d go without food as well, if the VR deal wasn’t time limited. George had increased the basic four-hour deal to ten hours a day a few months ago, when Ellen started topping up his account from her own income. It was simply to keep the peace that he upped it, and ever since she’d become so vegetative, he’d tried to cut it down again, but she just couldn’t sit still without the mask on.

“I’ve even had to spoon feed her while she drifts into another fantasy or she’ll starve. Maybe you should save your money and we’ll let her go cold turkey, down on the street, where she can howl as much as she likes.  Last time I ventured out, it was like one of those fucking war games out there so maybe she wouldn’t get bored at all.  Once she’s better, she might actually make the effort to talk to me, or we could drop her at that new day centre to make sleeping bags for the no hopers.”

“Dad, you know she’s not going to cope with less hours. And they’re not no hopers, they’re people who didn’t have jobs to lose when you got your UI deal. Besides, you’ve got your thing and she’s got hers.  It’s that or the happies, and you know how much they cost. Jodie should cut down on them, you know. She won’t want to get out of bed, and they’re really expensive too. I can’t afford to cover them as well as mum’s contract. If I don’t keep my job, she’ll be going cold turkey without any alternative.”

“Yeah, don’t tell me. Jodie wouldn’t need them if she had something to look forward to though. She always used to be so cheerful when she was at Tescos.  I was thinking that if we could get her back to studying, she could get some extra exams and get a job, like you did.  We could spend the money that Elsie’s wasting on VR and buy some educredit for her. It’d be a good investment, if she could get through them analytics exams like you did. She could earn her keep, instead of lounging around doing fuck all. We could get some real food and maybe sometimes get an m-rail into Oxford street or Camden, just for a walk around with some other people where there’s police protection.”

“There’s no jobs, dad, even if she had the exams done. I might not have one soon, and that’ll be it then. I’ll have to move in with you and share Jodie’s room and give up my flat.”

“You hang on in there, Ellen love. You was always the bright one and you know there ain’t nothing else once that’s gone. Jodie’ll be OK. I’ll see if she might help me with the engines when she’s bored.”

Chapter 2: Life in Tower Hamlets

The room was cramped and overheated. The air was stale and moist with the perspiration from the three occupants who had no way to open the windows or turn down the heating. It was a square room, with a low ceiling, and old aluminium framed windows, which faced North.  The walls had been magnolia, but now seemed more like a tobacco yellow, though nobody had smoked in there for ten years, and the carpet was a beige nylon pile, with stains and scuff marks around the doorway to the kitchenette.  The room was cluttered with basic furniture: two armchairs and four uprights, a cheap melamine dining table standing in front of an old Screen Wall which was rarely turned on.  Elise had stopped watching Netflix, and George only caught the news first thing in the morning, before the others were up. His Amazon had no credit and the screen wall hurt his eyes.

The windows looked out onto the nearest tower block in the massive estate, barely visible through the grime on the outside of the panes, and the smog-like atmosphere which hung over the area. Nothing was very clean, and nothing was new.  The flat was on the 24th storey of an unexceptional council tower block in Tower Hamlets. It was one of fifty seven such blocks on this estate, built to house newly retired and redundant families who didn’t have private means.  All of George and Elsie’s bills were paid at source, from their UI, and all the services to the thousands of occupants on the estate were regulated centrally. Those included the heating, lighting, broadband, surveillance, deliveries, maintenance of the communal areas, and lifts.  Nobody managed these services, which were all fully automated, and the residents had long since given up trying to complain online about faults or poor standards, since they had no control over payment or supply, and nobody to complain to.

In many ways, this was a care home for the economically inactive.  Elsie had been the one with the purse strings, when George had his full-time job at Fords, building gearboxes for diesel cars.  They’d lived in a low-rise in Dagenham then, where there was a caretaker, a boiler repair man and a lift service company to ensure that the services they paid for through the tenants association met with the required standards.  Even when the automated services began to replace manned contractors, it was at least a competitive process to choose the best company, and the providers offered human oversight and back-up when the robots failed. Elsie was on the committee that made the choice of contractors then, and had no qualms about curtailing a contract, or considering a new supplier, when quality wasn’t adequate.  Now, with all the service charges taken centrally, and their food paid for and delivered without choice, there was nothing left in the bank each week to make discretionary purchases, so Elsie simply gave up on her role as housekeeper.

George hadn’t been much use with money, and tended to throw the bills away, or let them sit in his inbox for months on end, so Elsie had always managed the budget.  Even if they had any control over their finances now, she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on their vmail bills or their bank accounts.  She had long since lost the ability to concentrate on anything except the game.

The voices of the people in adjoining flats could always be heard clearly through the walls, and the ceiling in the sitting room, but you got used to that background to your life very quickly. Though the views from so high up should have been panoramic, encompassing the South Bank, Big Ben, the Wheel, Westminster Abbey and back to the City and Docklands, there was so much dust on the outside of the windows that it was impossible to see anything clearly. Ellen couldn’t make out individual apartments opposite, and if she stood with her head on the window, and looked down, she could only make out the movement of the traffic below at night, when the moving lights were visible. The hoped-for clean air may have come, or it may be on its way, but it wasn’t possible to tell from inside the flat, because the windows were etched with a fine frosting after years of acid rain.

Since the loss of fossil fuels, there had been a dramatic reduction in vehicles on the road, and nobody burned coal any more, which should have cleared the air, but nobody noticed. Nobody went out more than they had to during the day, in the heat. UV protection cost money that nobody in Tower Hamlets could afford.

Once driverless vehicles proliferated, private motoring had become prohibitively expensive, and the old petrol and diesel cars had all be converted or scrapped. Multi-lane roads gave way to single lane streams of electric traffic which never stopped. MPVs pulled in and out of the flow to drop and collect passengers, and only the wealthiest people had their own cars as most people had given up their privacy in favour of economy. Car parks had all but disappeared, and the MPVs worked day and night.  Nevertheless, across the city, more apartment blocks had taken over the spaces left by the carparks and green areas, and the little sky visible before had been supplanted with grey windows and concrete pillars.

George bemoaned the demise of the motor car, and of the internal combustion engine, but only because he could build one with his eyes shut and had never been retrained for making electric vehicles with their computer technology and sophisticated battery power. The MPVs were entirely built by robots, and were designed to travel over a million miles between services, which were conducted by driverless repair vehicles at the roadside. Once the new MPVs and journey micro-billing services had been introduced, the industry changed almost overnight. Fuel stations and docking stations were replaced by road surface charging panels, and ‘manual’ driver insurance quickly became an impossible luxury as driverless was many times safer than human controlled driving. As soon as critical mass was reached, the employers in city centres built travel time into their work schedules, and passengers were expected to treat their journeys as office time. In a larger vehicle, as many as a dozen people could be on separate calls, v-mailing, scanning the news, ordering their shopping and arranging their social lives.  Some people even chose to spend their whole working day in an MPV, going wherever it was needed, and paying the charges for mobile office services while on the move, rather than just the cost of transportation from A to B.

George gave up watching what other people did in their apartments in the surrounding blocks, as it was clear that they did just what he, Elsie and Jodie did: nothing. He’d even stopped complaining about the noise his neighbours made while rowing or partying, because it was at least the sound of human interaction. He gave up going out once the streets became too dangerous, especially as his Zurich UI policy didn’t operate in Tower Hamlets, which had been re-zoned as unsafe.  The green parks which used to surround the estate became scorched and brown long before they were built on, and the last few trees were removed to prevent the bed-rollers from building fires.

Chapter 1: Insight

The news, which was continuously streamed on the office v-wall, washed over her:

“…..minister for profiling reported increasing numbers of birthcert chips being hacked and deactivated illegally… darknetters… calling for greater deportation powers…”

“Whitecastle Boardroom coup as General Pinders is appointed head of Government Contracts…”

“…Zurich announces £50bn rights issue … investment in Monsanto’s Crispr Development Labs… stem the growing number of immuno-deficient births…”

“… In trading today, shares in the PQ90 Plus Surrogacy Clinic plumet as G-mapping fraud is uncovered…”

Ellen hated the news always being on in the Insights Department offices.  Every day it was getting worse. Control of behaviour, control of choice, de-selection of undesirable traits. God knows what it would be like if the Government introduced the more stringent pre-natal assessment measures being talked about. Sure, the average intelligence and health of the nation would improve, but there would be nowhere to hide.  It wouldn’t be about the no claims bonus any more, more likely about widening the deportation net and, if the hawks got their way, forced terminations.

On the dot of five, Ellen approved her last match of the day, without the level of attention she might have applied earlier in the afternoon, logged off and got up to leave. The head of department was out and Jade wasn’t working late on the night of her party, so for once, it would be OK to be leaving on time.

She and Jade left the office together, and waiting for the lift, side by side, Ellen dwarfed Jade. When the lift d-panel checked her, the inevitable slim-line ready meal ads began to play.  Jade’s panel was much more interesting.

“I’m sick of only getting dieting ads while you get handbags and holidays.  I mean, I go to the gym, I take the medication.  Even when I get shown clothes they’re never as posh as yours. Still, no disrespect, but with your Dad on the Board, and Jasper wanting to marry you, you don’t have to put up with anything but the best, do you. ”

Ellen had been over-spending, what with all the help she’d been giving her dad with his UI, to support the rest of the family, and her balance seemed permanently low, so she never got presented with upmarket goods or holidays.  Surely you should be allowed to see things you can’t afford as well as those you can. Isn’t aspiration good for morale? But that isn’t Jade’s fault, it’s upstairs that policy is made. Zurich’s tendrils extend to advertising, and it’s intricately entwined with the Amazon empire too.

“That’s the point about having your G-map held by the insurance company.” Jade reminded her “They bring you into line, recommend the best way to live and help you to stay with the programme, or get penalised on the policy, which is a good thing, right? I know it’s hard for you, but it’s best this way.”

Ellen caught herself wanting Jade to fall down the stairs, or suddenly become obese or get seduced by a man with congenital abnormalities or something.  She seemed to epitomise all that Ellen felt was wrong with the system her dad had created.  She was his AI project.  Perhaps she was in fact a futuristic robot rather than a human being.  Perhaps everyone had fallen asleep and woken up to find that the definition of human being had changed and there was no longer any need for robots, because they’d become artificial in their intelligence.  Now all people needed to do was learn how to work much faster.

Jade was a fine-boned bird, while Ellen was more of an Elk. Not overweight, but large, and with a strong drive to graze.  George and Elsie were both large too.

“You’re over 25, and so your parents probably didn’t know what they were getting into when they decided to start a family. You were obviously conceived before pre-marital G-mapping came into force, so it’s not surprising your PQ is high.”  They had had this conversation often.  Ellen noticed the undercurrent of pity in Jade’s tone.  If they weren’t supposed to be friends, Ellen would have considered it distain.  Jade was only 23, and undoubtedly, Stan would have chipped himself before it became generally fashionable and then obligatory.  His ex-wife would have been forced to go through through the procedure by his bullying, and they’d have know exactly what sort of child Jade would turn out to be.  Ellen wondered how Stand felt about what he’d produced.  She wondered whether he’d been tempted to start a cloning facility to build an army of Jades, which would be a good thing, right?

“I know it’s sentimental wanting to marry someone for love, and risking everything on chemistry, but why can’t natural selection and chance play a bigger part? Who wants the perfect PQ baby with the perfect bore of a man?”

Ellen, ever the romantic, wanted to feel attracted more than she wanted to further improve the human race. Jade just frowned and scrolled through her messages from dozens of excited party-goers accepting her invitation.  The invitation list was a roll-call of the next generation of leaders, and probably had Stan’s fingerprints on it.  He was certainly footing the bill for Jade’s wedding, which she never seemed to shut up about.  Ellen had yet to receive her invitation, and she was certain that this wouldn’t arrive unless Ellen made the cut at the end of the month when the redundancies were announced.  Nobody on UI would get past the perimeter fence at the venue.

“See if I care.  I do hope you’ve got some interesting men coming to the party I might like.”

“Funny you should say that. There’s a guy been staying with Janine at my place that might appeal.  He’s spent the last week with her, but he doesn’t seem bothered about her, and I’ve invited them both to the party. I had already invited her, and when they got together, I had to include him, but then I wondered if he wasn’t hitting on me rather than getting into her.  You know Janine, though.  Always after a good party.  Anyway, this guy, John, is pretty fit.  Might be your time.  You should check him out though. I haven’t, and he might be a 30 or something, and you wouldn’t get a look in then. No disrespect. Then again, he might be a Sub… he’s got something about him which makes me uneasy.  I have the feeling he dumped her this morning, so if he comes, he’ll be on his own.  Frankly I’ll be glad to see the back of him, because Janine isn’t the quietest in bed, when she’s got company. But he is easy on the eye, and clearly knows how to handle her.”

Jade didn’t want to say too much to put Ellen off, because it would suit her purposes if Ellen took John away.  She’d been uncomfortable having him staying at the flat, because she didn’t know him and didn’t trust him, and he’d seemed very nosey.  Up till now, Janine had only really had one-night stands, and was hopelessly fickle about men.  Then this guy turned up and first of all he seemed to spend more time chatting to her than Janine, and asking all sorts of questions about work and her dad. And then he started winding Jasper up, teasing him about being a rich kid, and mouthing off about his lifestyle, which this John seemed to know more about that he should. Jade assumed that Janine has been gossiping with him and made a mental note not to tell her anything. She also decided to check with Jasper whether he wanted to contribute to the rent now that he’s practically living at the flat, so she could squeeze Janine out.

When digital birth certs came in, just after Ellen was born, she had been mapped and chipped, along with George and Elsie, and they were all put on the programme immediately.  In her case it worked wonders – low cholesterol, average BMI and a much admired body. Her high PQ scores for ill health related mainly to obesity, and her parents’ historic life profiles and habits, which were all built into Ellen’s PQ.  The company had included the programme requirements when they had signed off on the insurance contract, and had forced the family to accept an all-encompassing regime affecting their diets, who they socialised with, and what they discussed or followed on social media. George and Elsie were both working then, and news of George’s impending redundancy from Fords had forced them to downgrade their policy to restricted rights. Ellen was no longer covered under the family policy, because she had already started at Zurich and one of their company benefits was the staff policy, which she joined to save George money.  When she left home and started living alone in the city, she was determined to eat more healthily, and participate in some of the staff sports programmes, and she had managed over the last year to get her PQ down from 78 to 75, but it was a constant struggle.

She just made the 5.10 M-Rail east and she got to Tower Hamlets by five thirty, which avoided her having to turn down an invitation to stay for dinner at home. Elsie was no longer interested in her being there, and Jodie was on the happies, so she barely noticed anything, but she knew that George waited all week for her to visit, and he always got quite maudlin if she didn’t give him enough attention

Chapter 1: Romantic Genes

“I know this should go hand in hand with a discounted PQ for sufferers, who will all be cured within two or three months, but as you know, the quarterly dividend is due, and I’ve had it from Finance that we’re deferring the adjustment and squeezing a little more out of sufferers before we notify them of the change. You’ll probably get complaints from G-Match applicants with these markers, once they’re notified of the delay.  If you do, tell them we’ll ease the PQ limits this month and they can G-Match five points above their normal max.”

This was Jade’s way of fudging the boundaries while making more money for Zurich and her own bonus, as well as pleasing daddy.  If the update had resulted in greater penalties on the PQ, like the effect on South East London’s water supply of the raw sewage leak last month, the charges would have been passed on immediately. But as soon as an advancement actually benefited people, it was held back, and even their access to treatment held back on financial grounds. The proposed removal of infants with congenital conditions from the Amazon tracker would be one more outrageous decision driven by greed. Injustice always incensed Ellen.

“If your incurable congenital defect is now curable, you should benefit from the advance immediately, and not be left waiting for the adjustment, and penalised for it,” she blurted out.

She knew she should really keep her mouth shut, since Jade was not one to get sentimental about people she didn’t know, but she couldn’t help herself.

“How long will they have to wait for the adjustment, Jade? Do you have anything from Dr James on the cost per person? Are we talking about a lot of people?”

“No, as I said, you won’t come across many of them.  Having said that, the adjustment won’t be expensive, and it can be administered through dietary supplements, apparently. As it’s a fix, it won’t benefit sufferers, only their children.  Look, I’ll let you know as soon as I know, what the plans are for intruducing the adjustments, and getting the sufferers off the PQ penalty.

After the meeting, Jade called Ellen into her office to have a quick chat. Ellen knew what was coming.

“Look, Ellen, you know I’m a big supporter of your work.  I know you have everyone’s wellbeing at heart, but this is a cut-throat business and we’re in a corner here in Insights.  You know we can only keep half the team, and I want you to be here after the cull, as my number two, but in all honesty, I can’t recommend you if you keep showing me up in meetings.”

Ellen knew she had to suppress the rage she felt.  If she wanted to stay in at Zurich, this was a red line.  You get with the programme and accept the human consequences, or you get dumped into the reject pile, where universal income dictates your life and death, and you no longer even have the semblance of choice.

“Yeah, I know. Sorry Jade. I just want to feel that what we’re doing is making life better for people, not worse.  Sometimes I think we’re really helping people find what they want and that we’re bringing a unique human aspect to our work. Then along comes another load of decisions which are driven only by the costs.  Do you remember that saying “the best things in life are free”? What was that about?”

“There you go again, Ellen.  You’re the conscience of the whole fucking department, and I respect you for having morals, but frankly, you need to keep them to yourself.  It’s not just my views that’re being taken into account. You know they’re picking up on all of it, all the time.” Jade pointed to Ellen’s wrist, on which her PQ had probably just risen several points.

“Yes, I do try to keep my mouth shut, but when I’m stressed, I just have to say what I’m thinking. I can’t see how it’s going to get better with half the people, and twice the pressure. I just want something good to think about…” Ellen felt like crying, but Jade didn’t like having to handle her staff’s problems.

“C’mon, girl. You’ve got my party to look forward to, which is good, right?”

The lowest score Ellen ever matched was a 30, held by an extremely wealthy young man in perfect health, who exhibited careful behaviour, conformist attitudes and ‘safe’ friends, but with his own creative and individual style. When he came up on her screen, Ellen was positively drooling.

“Hey, Magda, Jade, look at this one. Enough to make your mouth water.  Jade, I bet you’d give up Jasper for this guy, Alexander De Vries.” Everyone had gathered around Ellen’s screen and was ogling the very handsome, square-jawed, blue-eyed man in the centre, who had a self-assured smirk and serious eye-brow puckering all in the same expression.

“I wonder if I could hide him behind a big score. You know, put a one in front of his unbelievably low PQ, and then set a date and time.” Magda was always scheming to match good looking men, even though she’d been married for several years to the Russian policeman, who was a PQ67. She was looking after the 35-50s in North London, and probably hankering after some toy boy sex.

The whole day was filled with smart cracks and fivolity around the office. “Alexander The Great’”, as he’d been nicknamed, had been matched to a stunning model whose great score was still quite a bit higher than his, at 42, primarily because of her weaker financial position, though their combined PQ72 was still lower than Ellen’s own PQ of 78. That’s the sort of pain you don’t want when you’re single.  Needless to say, the match was approved, and she couldn’t help tracking their combined score most days over the next couple of weeks, during their first dates. Alexander clearly had a positive influence on the model’s score, which dropped to 38 after he helped her with her career, but they ended up parting company, despite their seemingly ideal pairing, and he subsequently showed a lot of interest in a PQ63, who was also very attractive and ambitious, but whose family included three sets of twins, and an uncle who had been arrested for paedophilia. The factors affecting your PQ are ever more far reaching and dig deep into your family’s past. Despite their combined PQ93, and its concomitant premium rise, they had settled down to make a family. It just goes to show that if you can afford to pick and choose, you don’t have to go for the person who delivers the most obvious benefits. Ellen took great solace from this, given her own PQ and single status.

High scores always indicated higher costs on insurance, because of greater risk across the 200 key variables which the PQ summarised.  Ellen could click on any of the images on her screen to see all the individual factors which were aggregated to make the final figure, and which were all held on everyone’s embedded chip. Some were tiny, because they had only a marginal impact on one’s desirability, while others were more important. Law and order variables were always scored more highly than health variables, even though many of the medical scores had much more of a genetic element, which meant improving the chances for the next generation and beyond. This was because everything was about short term profit in the insurance industry, and the companies were always trading their books in an effort to increase their value. Someone might sign up for Zurich and find themselves transferred several times to the books of other insurers, with concomitant downgrades in their medical services, or hikes in their premiums without justification.  If there were riots in London, which happen in the summer mainly, then the London customers’ book value could plummet and any company exposed on anti-social behaviour scores would become vulnerable to take-over, so they all tried to mess about with the algorithms to reduce the risk. The increasing use of unsafe zones, where insurance no longer covered anything, counterbalanced the law and order impact of variables in the PQ, but the savings generated by living, working and socialising in safe zones were not passed on in the form of lower PQs.  That was part of the political game which was played out far above Ellen’s pay grade.

Ellen liked the look of the girl on the left, who reminded her of herself a bit, and the guy that this girl had applied to meet didn’t strike her as a bad choice either. Ellen copied his code into her personal folder for consideration as a possible G-Match for herself, if this date of his didn’t come to anything.  The two prospective partners had a combined PQ145, which was quite high, and the dark haired girl with the round face really ought to choose someone with a lower PQ, because her income didn’t really support PQ145, but all the guys behind her first choice were higher scoring. Ellen couldn’t do a lot to help her, but she had her secret stash in a small sub-folder, called 1NS, short for one-night stands, of men with attractive PQs who liked to play the field.  If she raided her store and inserted one of her PQ50-60 men into the match, they might hit it off, but he’d probably go off after one or two dates looking for a PQ40, who probably wouldn’t want him. The footloose low scorers were a bunch of arrogant and greedy lads who cared more about getting their end away, and about lowering their premiums, than the feelings of the girls they dated, and were always boasting on social media about the low scores of their conquests.

Ellen was a romantic at heart. She dreamed of meeting the PQ30 man at a party and him falling for her, despite the scores. She fantasised about men she couldn’t get, and even with her job, and all the access it gave her to the G-Match database, she didn’t seem able to find mister right.  She opened her folder and chose a couple of guys for the dark haired girl, dragging the man in the centre of the screen back to the bench, and then she sent the girl her alternatives to consider.  Within a few seconds, one of the shoe-ins had a date with the girl,and Ellen could move on to a new Match screen. The guy on the bench would warrant further study tomorrow, if she didn’t meet anyone tonight at the party.

Chapter 1: Bounty Hunters

Using his sub-routine, Stan was able to find several links between Artremis and Vaunt, who had both provided contract coding and encryption services to the DDS, MoD and one or two security firms.  They had both gone off-grid within ten minutes of one another which meant that they were working together at the time. Gimme had not surfaced as a hacker co-operative until two or three months before the Zurich breach, so Stan could not be sure that they were key players in the hack, but he thought it likely.  He tried every security monitoring service to find them without success.

Once the Egress repairs had been made, and the round-up contract had been put out on all those whose names had been deleted and who had gone off-grid during the breach, Stan brought in a specialist firm of bounty hunters, put substantial deportation prices on the top fifteen names, and sent them out to hunt down the hackers.  He didn’t expect much success in arresting either Artremis or Vaunt, since their stock images and voice prints, which Zurich stored on all chips and in their central databanks, had been hacked and erased. Offline storage had never been a high priority at Zurich, and his team only managed to dredge up material from at least ten years ago on both, because they had not been on any high risk lists until Egress was compiled, and by then they were both off-grid.  The voice prints were the voices of teenagers whose voices had barely matured. He ran these against current databases of a wide range of public spaces, but it was like looking for a couple of small needles in a very larfge haystack. It was not surprising to Stan that both had had the sense to disguise all their scannable characteristics.

Many of the Egress deletions were only taken off-grid at the time of the hack, and for these people, Zurich kept up-to-date voice, retina and facial prints which were immediately issued to the bounty hunters.  Many of them were picked up within the first few weeks because they hadn’t pre-prepared their disguises, using fake fingerprints and contact lenses to deal with the issue.  The national security camera network made discovery very easy for these run-of-the-mill Subversives, and half of them were deported before the breach had become news. Zurich’s damage limitation PR simply reported on the repair programe, the amount of swift justice meted out, and the success of the new genetic marker chip in closing down any future hacking.  In truth, the problem was far from dealt with, and for as long as Zurich had encrypted information which sought to subjugate people, there would be teams of hackers ready to try and bring it down.


“And update 15.2.28 is a downgrade on the PQ variables associated with a range of immuno-deficiency markers. Zurich Crispr Lab has built another repair patch to take them off FADs, which is good, right?”

Everyone in Zurich was aware of the groundbreaking DNA modification work that the Crispr Lab had been implementing. Hardly a month had gone by in the last year without a new chromosomal repair patch being brought out to remove inherited conditions from the ‘fatal and debilitating’ list, nicknamed the FADs. This list, originally developed by actuaries working in the NHS, was adapted and added to by the insurance industry after the public health service collapsed and all medical care was privatised. Zurich’s newer version included, for every condition, a monetary value based on its incidence rate, prognosis and therefore costs to the industry of providing medication or palliative care. With this data, the Crispr Lab was able to focus on those conditions which cost the most nationally to medicate. The PQ algorithms pushed up premiums dramatically for those who had any congenital defects, and sufferers or their parents were hard sold opt-outs to discourage them from paying to have these conditions covered.  Microencephaly, Down Syndrome and  spina bifida had been eradicated, while cleft palates and limb reduction defects, like achondroplasia, while frequent, were not as costly and had been de-prioritised. They had been moved into the luxury add-ons for platinum packages, and removed from the vast majority of UI policies. This was also the case with any foetal abnormalities which would prove fatal during pregnancy or within the first weeks of life. No insurer saw the need to deal with something which effectively dealt with itself. ‘Let nature take its course’ was a favourite saying of Dr James, the head of Crispr, who administered FADs.

“This new patch covers DiGeorge Syndrome and SCID or Severe Combined Immuno-deficiency, also known as Bubble-boy disease,” Jade read from her Amazon.  “The incidence rates for these are low, at around one in fifty thousand children, but have been increasing, and they’re expensive conditions and well workth the fix. 15.2.28 will be introduced immediately for all those carrying DiGeorge and Bubble-boy markers, but in both cases, the benefits won’t feed through for a year.  According to Dr James, there are 1200 carriers in the UK, which means no more than 10 due to become pregnant in the next year, so this is a slow burner.”

Fewer children with SCID had been lost to cot deaths since chipping at birth became mandatory, because everyone had full tracking rights on their children up to the age of sixteen. The Amazon alarms were hugely popular with parents of toddlers and children of primary school age, and cot deaths were a rarity. Preventing children with SCID from dying before they were two meant much greater costs later in life, and Zurich was not alone in the industry in wanting to selectively remove SCID carriers from the infant tracking service, allowing them to ‘fall by the wayside’ rather than survive. Jade had had a chat with Stan about this over the weekend, as she couldn’t see why he would authorise the cost of the research.

“Surely it’s cheaper to cut SCID cover from the policy than it is to introduce medical interventions, dad?”

“You’re right, darling, it is certainly cheaper in all cases to leave people without cover than to try and advance science and improve the gene pool.  If it were just about profits now, we’d be trying to sell insurance without benefits.”

Stan enjoyed these little spats with Jade.  She had yet to teach him anything about the business they were in, but every time she countered his proposals, he learned a little more about the way her age group thought about each other, and it sometimes shocked even him.